President’s Report 2021

Following my taking over the presidency of the association last year my focus was very much on the DOC Whitebait Management Review. It was obvious from the DOC ‘Consultation Document’ and ‘Summary of Submissions’ that some very serious changes were a likelihood for whitebaiting on the West Coast. 

These included the identification of a further 15 rivers to close on the West Coast, catch limits, licensing, quotas, banning the sale of whitebait, phasing out sock nets, banning screens and making our season one month shorter, just to name a few.

Fortunately for us, our attempts defend the status quo and to get some common sense into the process coincided with the final stages of the General Election.

This created opportunities to talk to politicians face to face, explaining why many of the ideas promoted in the DOC Consultation documents did not apply, or would not work on the West Coast, and the severe economic consequences that some of the proposed changes would make.

Strategically we had three main strengths to our arguments. The first was the Official Information Act request of DOC made by one of our members (Robyn), from Haast. This resulted in the response that DOC had no evidence of a decline in whitebait populations in any of our major West Coast rivers, or in Fiordland. We all owe her our gratitude for taking the initiative to do this and demonstrate that individual actions can benefit us all.

The second was the discovery that the New Zealand Freshwater Fisheries Database, which the NZ Threat Classification System is based on, was not statistically valid for whitebait/Galaxiid species. There is simply no standardised methodology in the way the data was collected and it was largely a repository of sightings of adult whitebait. The first researcher to comment on this was well-known freshwater biologist Mike Joy back in 2013. Others have followed since.

The third defence we had was the paucity of data and scientific knowledge on Galaxiid populations in general. It was easy for us to make the point that “absence of evidence does not equate to evidence of absence”.

Simply put, management decisions were about to be made in a knowledge vacuum and I think most of us will be familiar with the adage “that if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it”.

Like several other groups, including Forest and Bird, we made the call for more research to be carried out on the whitebait fishery, enabling management to be data based. It is pleasing to note that one of the outcomes of the review announced by the Acting Minister is to be more research.

One of the disappointing aspects of the whole review process was the failure to recognise the amount of habitat restoration being carried out around the country and on the West Coast in particular. Even Eugenie Sage, Minister of Conservation at the time, had stated publicly that, “For many threatened native fish, being caught on a line or net is not the threat. Restoration of habitat and preventing further habitat loss is essential to ensure our native freshwater fish thrive.

Despite this, the review was focused entirely on changing whitebait fishing regulations. Now that the regulation changes have been made, we should be in a position to push DOC for the application of other strategies as part of an integrated approach to whitebait management. Habitat improvement and research on whitebait population dynamics should be central to this. If you think about it, it’s absolutely pointless increasing the amount of juvenile whitebait escaping our nets and heading upstream if there is no quality habitat to support the adults and enable them to breed.

In terms of habitat, the association has acted on two West Coast Regional Council resource consents. These concerned log recovery from South Westland rivers, and Westland Milk Products consent to remove water from the Hokitika River.

It was pleasing to note that in her press release announcing the regulation changes, Acting Conservation Minister Ayesha Verrall stated that, “Work will continue on improving spawning sites,” and “Better information is essential to ensure the whitebait management programme is effective.”

She also stated that she intended to work more closely with whitebaiters, and partner with Mana Whenua. The meetings I have had with the Minister of Conservation and the Director-General should help maintain a positive relationship with the department.

I recently met with Kara Edwards of Ngai Tahu/Makaawhio and appreciate the support we received from Manu Whenua over the review process. It seems clear that they will have a stronger role in whitebait management in the future.

Once the new regulations are embedded I think that as an association we need to begin to focus on what the future management of whitebait will look like. The possibilities will include:

  • DOC co-management with Mana Whenua (based on Waitangi Tribunal Claim 262 2019)
  • Increased whitebait population monitoring and research
  • Adaptive management based on population trends
  • Increased habitat enhancement including improved fish passage.

Based on this, I think it would be a mistake to assume that there will be no further changes to the regulations and the way we fish in the future. It will be important that the association has an active involvement in all of the above processes and be part of any future changes rather than have them imposed on us.

As a first step, I think that it is important that we continue to maintain a good working relationship with DOC, and continue our participation in the West Coast Sustainable Whitebait Working group that you have heard Joy Comrie, the coordinator of that group, explain. As you know, this association has had representation on that group since its inception.

It is also noteworthy to read the recent announcement that Mike Hickford from Canterbury University – who has spoken to us here on several occasions – is to lead a group of freshwater ecologists to carry out research on whitebait sustainability, specifically to find out whether whitebait are in decline, and the impact of commercial and recreational whitebaiting.

As reported in the Grey Star, Mike believes that “the whitebait fishery is at a crossroads, but there is currently little basis to select an effective management strategy”. Hence the need for further research. As some members are already supplying Mike with catch data, it is likely that this will be ongoing. Mike has earlier indicated that this research will involve some West Coast rivers.

By now most of you will be familiar with the new whitebaiting regulations released by the Acting Minister of Conservation Ayesha Verrall. I think most members will agree, and as mentioned earlier, that we have largely avoided some fairly draconian changes. The most significant and contentious changes are the 6m rule to come in in 2023 for all fishing gear, and the rule imposing a 20m space between fixed nets.

Since becoming President last year, I have had many meetings aimed at communicating the views of the association related to proposed regulation changes. These relationships should be beneficial for the future.  

Finally I would like to thank the following people:

Members of the Executive Committee:
(Note – currently no active branches, but executive members currently cover most of region)

Brenda Monk (Vice President), Gary Brown, Kevin Harris, Brian Morgan, Mike Thomas.

Treasurer: Karen Burrows for keeping books and financials in order.

Secretary: Trish Roney for keeping members informed.


~ That concludes my President’s report 2021.