Changes to Whitebait Regulations – An Opposing View

Headlines announcing proposed changes to whitebait regulations in a report to the NZ Conservation Authority, produced by NIWA, have sent shock waves throughout the whitebait community. This is serious stuff that will have profound affects. The process has a long way to go, and we need to consider its implications carefully.

Readers will note that I refer here to two reports. I have been aware of both for some time. The contentious one is the NIWA report. This was commissioned by the New Zealand Conservation Authority in response to some regional conservation authorities whose view of the whitebait fishery had been influenced by the outpourings of a small radical group. To be clear, this did not come from the West Coast Conservation Authority. They have a far better understanding, and more enlightened view of whitebait management.

The NIWA emphasis was to produce restrictive regulations that would conserve whitebait stock, which they described as threatened. While NIWA did recognise other factors affecting the wellbeing of the species, addressing these was considered complementary to regulation change, which they saw as the priority.

There are key questions here:

  • What is the actual condition of the whitebait species?
  • Will the recommended changes actually work?
  • What are the major threats, and how should they be addressed?

Why whitebait are described as ‘threatened’

There are five species of whitebait. NIWA describes all as threatened, and justify their claim because all appear on the Department of Conservation’s Threatened Species List. However, the department applies a “precautionary policy” to manage this list, whereby if there is insufficient information on the condition of a species, that species will be listed as threatened until sufficient information is gathered to justify removing it from the list. There are huge gaps in the information on whitebait. The actual condition of this species is unknown, and research indicates they are not threatened.

Professor Mike Hickford and Dr David Schiel, distinguished freshwater ecologists who lead the whitebait project at Canterbury University said in a 2018 article that the decline in whitebait was probably overstated:

“Fears about their decline and wildly unfounded claims that they will go extinct have turned them into the poster child for all that is besetting our freshwater environment. While it is true there are many things affecting whitebait and their population dynamics, whether they are in serious decline, or on a downward trajectory is highly debatable. We know this from many years of research on whitebait and their ecological requirements.”

The second report (link to PDF) was a summary of current knowledge and gaps in information in the conservation, ecology and management of migratory galaxiids, and the whitebait fishery. We’ll call it the Goodman report. It was produced by Jane Goodman, a senior freshwater ecologist employed by DoC. Her report notes, in the Executive Summary:

“There is very little conclusive research about the effect of harvesting on the five species. Some attempts have been made to collect catch data, but these have been largely unsuccessful and/ or inaccurate.”

The Goodman report does not recommend changes to whitebait regulations, but focuses on water quality, fish passage, and breeding sites.

The rules governing whitebait fishing

Two sets of regulations govern whitebait fishing. These are the New Zealand Whitebait Fishing Regulations, and the Whitebait Fishing (West Coast) Regulations.

There are notable differences between the two. The NIWA report notes the existence of both, but misses the differences within. The recommended NIWA changes include:

  • reduce the length of the season;
  • introduce reserve areas;
  • restrict fishing areas on selected rivers;
  • ban the use of screens;
  • ban the use of deflectors to guide fish into nets;
  • ban fishing from boats;
  • reduce net sizes; and
  • introduce licensing as a step towards catch recording and a quota system.

The existing West Coast Regulations include the following that do not apply elsewhere:

A shortened season; 22 Reserve areas; 22 rivers where special conditions apply; 47 rivers where Back Pegs are located; fishing beyond the tidal zone prohibited on all rivers; length of screens reduced by half; 7 restrictions around the placement of fishing gear; use of devices to guide fish into nets is banned. 

Fishing from boats has been banned in both regulations since the 1980s. The West Coast Regional Council strictly enforces rules that dictate which rivers can have stands, the number and location of stands, the maximum length of stands (river by river), and requires the complete removal of all stands and associated structures at the conclusion of each season. Councils elsewhere apply far more relaxed rules, or apply none at all.

Concentrate on habitats, not more regulations

All these restrictions have been in force on the West Coast since the mid 1980s, and despite being in place for some 30 years there has been no improvement to whitebait stock. This signals that regulation restrictions do not work as a conservation tool, and there are other far more important factors at play. In support of this we refer to the comments of Dr Ken Hughey, DoC’s chief scientist, who said that making sure whitebait have a good habitat would help in the battle of depleting numbers:

“The science we have says concentrate on habitat and we are hopeful that will lead us forward over time.”

A sensible alternative

The changes proposed by NIWA will produce a lot of negatives, with nothing to indicate success.

On the other hand, we have a viable alternative being progressed on the West Coast that will improve whitebait stock.

This is the action to develop a sustainable wild whitebait fishery in the West Coast Economic Development Action Plan 2017
(link to PDF of plan here). Its core aim is to ensure sustainability by improving, water quality, fish passage, and breeding sites, all of which are recognised as the main factors affecting whitebait. Planning is well advanced and a lot of ground work has already been done.

This programme is a New Zealand first, and will be a model for others to follow. This is the way forward, not an ill-considered knee-jerk reaction to the ill-informed.

There is a long process to go through before any law change. The Whitebaiters Association will engage in this process. It does need your support.