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 in June 2018, sent shock waves throughout the whitebait community. This is serious stuff that will have profound effects. The process has a long way to go, and we need to consider its implications carefully.

Below, we look at the context of the proposed changes and the various reports, and give our responses, based on the extensive experience and knowledge of our members, and experts in the field. First, though, the latest developments:

> Latest news – August 2019

At the end of July, the government released the final report of the Environment Committee on the Conservation (Indigenous Freshwater Fish) Amendment Bill. You can download and read the PDF of the report on the parliament’s website.

From our president, Cheryl Riley‘s press statement, dated 1 August:

The West Coast Whitebaiters Association is very disappointed with the recommendations of the Environment Committee on the Conservation (Indigenous Freshwater Fish) Amendment Bill. Most of the recommended changes to the Bill are cosmetic at best. Our main concerns with the Bill are not met, and neither are those of most other submitters except for Fish & Game and hydro-electric power companies.

The Bill will require whitebaiters to get authorisation from DoC to go whitebaiting in DoC areas, of which there are many throughout NZ, especially on the West Coast. Apparently, this will be sorted out through DoC’s Whitebait Review process, but we have serious problems with this Whitebait Review and have no faith in such assurances.

The Bill continues to have confusing terms, such as fish “larvae”, which could include whitebait. It allows DoC to impose a closed “season” for up to 5 years – since when has a “season” been more than 1 year?

The Bill also doubles-up on RMA issues, and confuses things even more. For example, ditch and drain clearance will now need DoC authority to “take” freshwater fish if they get caught up in the digger’s bucket. Unlike the RMA, DoC will have no appeal nor oversight provisions on the regulations or declarations they can impose. We note, however, that hydro companies get off scot-free, presumably because they have the ear of the Minister.

The Conservation Act was always designed to allow DoC to manage residual issues relating to freshwater fisheries management where they weren’t being managed elsewhere, and undertake advocacy on behalf of indigenous freshwater fish. Now Eugenie seems to think that DoC needs a primary freshwater management role via this Bill, to build their empire and further justify their existence. We do not need another tier of management in the freshwater sphere. Increasing DoC’s powers will just make things more complex, unwieldy and expensive.

Get in touch with us for more information.

An appeal for catch data

To strengthen our position, we need whitebaiters to step up and send in catch data for each river. It is good that some have already done so. Whitebait catch data from Big Bay has already been collated and verified by NIWA and it shows absolutely no signs of decline.

Catch data can be sent to Cheryl Riley anonymously at PO Box 87, Hokitika 7842. This information will be treated confidentially. It will need to include the year and the river.

June 2018 – the NIWA report

We refer on this page to two reports. 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.”

At a meeting in early July 2019 in Hokitika that was attended by 90 fishers, Canterbury-based environmental ecologist, Bill Chisholm, emphasised that there was no evidence to support the notion that whitebait were in decline. He claimed it was a false narrative based on myth:

“We have evidence that whitebaiting per se has no effect on whitebait populations as a whole.”

The ‘Goodman report’

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.”

Canterbury environmental ecologist Bill Chisholm, at a meeting of fishers in Hokitika, said that if there was a problem, it was not due to harvesting, Rather, any decline in whitebait populations was due to loss of habitat – draining swamps, dams, diversions, discharges and the like. All of these activities are the responsibility of the regional council – not DoC.

Bill Chisholm said that the Amendment Bill should be stalled and sent back to the public for proper consultation and the DOC Whitebait Review should focus solely on habitat improvement – not harvesters.

“It needs to put the finger on regional councils for not taking whitebait habitat into account with consenting procedures and flood control works.”

“Ideally, the government would consult with the public and develop a national policy statement on native freshwater fish,” Bill said. The resulting law would require regional councils to follow the directives of such a policy statement.

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.