Whitebaiting season has just opened around the country, which means fritters may be back on the menu soon.

However, four of the five native fish species that make up whitebait are endangered, so conservation organisation Forest & Bird has called for a ban on commercial whitebaiting. It also wants better controls on regional whitebait catches, saying this would take the pressure off the severely declining species.

Last year's Department of Conservation report into the conservation status of NZ freshwater fish lists three of the whitebait species as "at risk/declining" and one species as threatened.

Fores t& Bird's Freshwater Advocate Annabeth Cohen said it made no sense for whitebait to be sold for a profit until they and their habitats were thriving.

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"It's time for regional councils and central government to take action on protecting and restoring wetlands and rivers, ending commercial catches, improving water quality, and putting recreational catch limits in place," she said.

Ms Cohen said regulation currently wasn't doing much to protect whitebait and that native fish are not even protected under the Wildlife Act.

"Whitebait used to be so plentiful they were caught by the truckload and used for fertiliser on farms. When we have returned whitebait back to these population levels, we'll know we've done a good job of caring for our native freshwater fish, and their rivers."

Kōaro, shortjawed kōkopu, banded kōkopu, giant kōkopu and inanga are the fish that make up whitebait. They are five of the fish species that migrate between fresh water and sea water in New Zealand every year.

Horizons Regional Council freshwater and partnerships manager Logan Brown said permits were not required to catch whitebait in the Horizons region, which includes Horowhenua, and that it was impossible to know if there were any commercial whitebaiters in the area because of that fact.

He said DOC was responsible for legislative protection and that the only legislation he was aware of — the Freshwater Fisheries regulations — only provided protection to the now-extinct grayling,

No other native freshwater fish species have protection, he said.

"Although Horizons is not involved in the administration of the whitebait regulations we are very active in restoring the habitat of these native fish species," Brown said.

This included spawning site surveys and working with landowners to enhance them and solving barriers to the fish travelling.

"One of the main drivers of the riparian planting programme that the council oversees is improving and increasing native fish habitat." Horizons recently invested more funding into its freshwater programme through the Long-term Plan and with two Freshwater Improvement Fund projects for stream fencing and riparian planting.
"Horizons has no ability to control whitebaiting itself as the current administrators of the regulations are the Department of Conservation," he said.

DOC's website includes restrictions for whitebaiting equipment, permitted locations and season dates, but no restrictions.

DOC recommends people help by keeping their whitebait catch small, although for many, including Forest & Bird, this is not enough.

Ms Cohen said Kiwis had to make a decision.

"It's time for us as a country to decide if we're willing to see these precious creatures go the way of the huia, or if we're prepared to ensure they're still around beyond our own lifetimes," she said.

A Horowhenua Chronicle Facebook poll asking if whitebaiting should be restricted to protect the native fish, or left alone as a Kiwi way of life, resulted in 80 per cent of respondents agreeing with further restrictions on the activity.