Call for urgent action to stem declining whitebait numbers

Overfishing, poor water quality and habitat destruction are contributing to declining numbers of whitebait, a Forest & Bird advocate says.

Freshwater advocate Annabeth Cohen said four whitebait species are at risk or threatened with extinction and she is calling on the government to strengthen the fishing regulations before the start of the West Coast whitebaiting season next year.

The West Coast whitebaiting season finished yesterday. It finishes on 30 November for the rest of New Zealand.

The Department of Conservation has just released its summary of submissions on their whitebait consultation, in which they acknowledged strong support from both fishers and non-fishers for a licence and catch limit to manage and monitor the whitebait fishery, Cohen said in a statement.

Forest & Bird’s submission also called for a licence requirement, a catch limit on both commercial and recreational fishing, and a data collection method.

“Native fish species in New Zealand are experiencing death by a thousand cuts. Overfishing is a pressure that we can alleviate right now.

“We need the government to prioritise our incredible native fish and ensure they will be here for future generations.

“It is now up to the Minister of Conservation and the Minister for the Environment to save our whitebait species from overfishing, water pollution, and habitat destruction, so they can thrive and be enjoyed by future generations.

“They travel through a largely unregulated fishery at the start of their lives and go on to live in habitats where bottom lines for pollutants like nitrogen and phosphorus are still not good enough,” Cohen said.

Forest & Bird said kōaro (at risk – declining), shortjaw kōkopu (threatened – nationally vulnerable), banded kōkopu, giant kōkopu (at risk – declining) and īnanga (at risk – declining) are the five migratory galaxiid fish in the whitebait catch. Common smelt is also a native fish that is part of the whitebait catch.

Whitebait spend part of their life in freshwater and part of their life in the sea. Each species grows to a different size, has a different lifespan, and a different breeding pattern. If allowed to grow, some species can reach up to almost 60cm long, while others can live for over a decade.