Whitebait fishers at a Whanganui forum listened intently to Conservation Department proposals to change fishing rules.
About 30 people went to the forum at Cooks Gardens on Tuesday, where DoC freshwater technical adviser Rosemary Miller outlined the proposals. Submissions on them are due by March 2.
Whitebait are the young of six species of native fish, and four of those species are classified as at risk or threatened. They are a taonga for Māori and for generations of New Zealanders.
There's no proposal to ban whitebait fishing, to require a licence for it, or to ban sales of whitebait but the Government is thinking of banning the export of whitebait. There have been 1000 tonnes of whitebait exported every year in the past, Miller said.
Other proposals seek to change whitebait fishing rules to allow more of the fish to survive.
Whitebaiter Lynn Teki-Turner was at the forum, and the information presented didn't convince her whitebait were in decline. She also said DoC staff seldom got to most places where she fished.
"They can't manage what they've got."
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But she said there did need to be changes to whitebaiting, and it was a pity the forum was held during hours when many fishers were at work.
Most people would comply if the changes weren't too drastic, she said.
"I feel the majority there would go with a few changes, if they can still operate."
One man asked why there is no catch limit on whitebait, as there is in Tasmania.
"Is there another fishery in New Zealand with no catch limit? When I tell people there's no catch limit, they don't believe me."
Catch limits were considered, Miller said, but Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage decided against them.
Whanganui senior biodiversity ranger Sara Treadgold said they would be hard to enforce.
One possible rule change could shorten the season, restricting it to times when the less threatened whitebait species, īnanga, is mainly running.
"It will give the young fish more time to migrate upstream without being caught in nets," Miller said.
DoC could also limit fishing to the tidal reaches of waterways.
No-fishing refuges could be imposed over certain areas and at certain times. They are especially useful in places where there is good whitebait habitat because a waterway is bordered by Conservation land.
The Whanganui, Whangaehu and Rangitīkei rivers and Kai Iwi Stream could all be candidates for refuges.
Other rule changes could ban sock nets and ban fishing from anywhere other than stands.
That drew howls of protest at the Taranaki forum, Miller said.
One attendee at the Whanganui forum said fishers were being asked to change their ways when landowners were also threatening the future of whitebait. A farmer had drained 40ha of swamp up the Kai Iwi Stream and "just wiped it out", he claimed.
Another man said the mesh in nets was getting finer, and coarser mesh could let the more endangered species through. One attendee advocated "cleaning" streams to make whitebait passage easier.
Miller said totally clearing waterways harmed whitebait, because they needed shade and cover, logs to hide under and overhanging vegetation.