Changes to Whitebait Regulations – a Timeline

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

June 2021

The Acting Minister of Conservation, Dr Ayesha Verrall, released a media statement on 2 June about the changes to the whitebaiting regulations. The statement includes a summary of the changes affecting the 2021 whitebaiting season so people can plan ahead. The full regulations will go through parliament over the next month or two.

Our president, Rob Roney, responded with a media statement in which he wrote that the minister’s announcement was a clear acknowledgement of the conservative management regime that has been practised on the West Coast for many years.

Accompanying the minister’s press release was a useful comparison from DoC of regulations changes for both the West Coast and the rest of New Zealand.

The new regulations can be found on the DOC website or on the NZ Government Legislation website.

An appeal for catch data

The West Coast Whitebaiters Association has been working with Dr Mike Hickford of Canterbury University to provide catch data to help gain a view of what is happening with West Coast whitebait populations over time. It is important to have consistency in terms of fishing methods etc as much as possible between years, and also to ensure hours of fishing are recorded. Catch data forms are available from our secretary, Trish Roney, who can also collect them and send onto Dr Hickford. Please note that your anonymity is maintained throughout.

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.

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.