President’s Report 2022

Following the turbulence of the past two years based on the DOC Whitebaiting Review, things have settled down considerably. Since I spoke to you at our last AGM there was a brief rush of questions from members centered mainly on whitebaiting rules at the various Covid levels, and also various media interviews related to that.

During the season I was invited to meet the Minister of Conservation when she visited the Whitebait habitat improvement project at Wadestone Island in Hokitika. It was all good news to observe the work being done and the funding announced by the Minister to extend the work done by the Jobs For Nature programme, and to further improve whitebait habitat in other places such as Punakaiki.

It was a good opportunity to discuss whitebaiting issues with the Hon Kiri Allan and to visit a stand of one of our members (Peter Campion) and for her to actually lift the net. One particular focus was the anticipated predicament resulting from next years ‘6 Metre Rule’ and we were able show her on stands on the South side of the river where she could see that the gentle sloping beach demanded lengthy screens.

While we agreed that the stands could retain their WCRC prescribed length, a system would need to be employed by the operators to move the 6 metres of fishing gear in with the incoming tide from 2023.

We have now had confirmation from the DOC Whitebait Fisheries Manager and the West Coast Regional Council that such systems are compliant, and are aware that some mobile trailer systems have been in use on various West Coast rivers for some time. However we do know that such systems will not be possible in some situations.

I found Kiri Allan good to deal with and she had a real empathy for whitebaiting as a keystone of Kiwi culture, and consequently I was disappointed to learn of  her recent portfolio change. It is hoped the new Conservation Minister, Poto Williams, will have a similar outlook.

Further communication has been maintained with DOC’s Whitebait group, particularly Elizabeth Heeg and Neil Deans through both on-line and physical meetings here in Hokitika. Some of you will be aware that DOC carried out some initial pilot work to obtain data on numbers of people whitebaiting on several West Coast rivers during last season to obtain information on fishing effort.
Results indicated that the number of whitebaiters had generally decreased since last sampled in 1988, although variables such as weather and Covid obviously impacted on numbers. A continuation and expansion of this work is expected to continue in future years.

In February I attended a meeting with Mark Davies, who you will know as DOC Director of Operations West Coast, and Heath Milne, CEO Development West Coast, to discuss funding options for research into the economic and Cultural value of whitebaiting on the West Coast.

During the year there has been a fairly steady stream of enquiries from whitebaiters, both members and non-members, mainly concerning the implementation of the new regulations. A suggestion of signage being erected at appropriate places on rivers outlining the basic rules is one we will be discussing with DOC Management.

This should assist both with reducing issues on the river and assisting compliance. Another suggestion is for our season to finish at the end of October (the 31st) and not the 30th, as it is this year, and I have been told will be looked at in the future.

During this year I was amazed to be contacted by several whitebaiters had only just realised the consequences of the new regulations, particularly the ‘6 metre rule’, which comes in next year, and they were surprised to learn that they have been gazetted and are now law. One wonders where they have been over the past two or three years.

Another common query from people contacting us related to the valuation of stands. Professional valuers who I spoke to shied away and explained what a minefield stand valuation is, especially in the middle of regulation change. The only advice I can offer is that those of us who are a little longer in the tooth perhaps should consider adding their whitebait stand to their will, and those who are in less than stable relationships, be prepared.

Finally it will be obvious to most that the new regulations have not treated all whitebaiters equally. Like with any law change there will be some winners and losers. Those on sloping riverbeds or beaches will generally be forced to make more changes to their fishing methods than those fishing from formed river banks, although it is acknowledged that even some of the latter will be rendered unfishable when the 6m rule is applied.

Those of us who fish braided rivers will be more accustomed to change, for example on the river I fish (Wanganui) there are currently around 40 stands that have been unfishable for the past five years and aren’t looking like being fishable this season. Such are the joys of owning a stand.

While it is easy to focus on the negative impacts of the new regulations it might be helpful to consider the things consulted upon which we did not lose. These include the closing of rivers, catch limits, and a ban on sale of whitebait just to name a few.
If it is the intention of DOC to manage the whitebait fishery on a sustainable, data driven basis then tweaks to the regulations must remain a possibility in the future.

As the say, ‘the only constant is change’.

Rob Roney
West Coast Whitebaiters Association