Des McEnaney is staring out to sea as though, if he squints hard enough, he might see his quarry. It’s good whitebaiting weather: here, north of Hokitika, at this stream that cannot be named, the air is disturbed only by the sandflies that strand in his hair, and the thump of grey breakers as they fail under their own weight.
The Tasman is in its usual turmoil, yet tiny fish—no bigger than a hairpin—are right now riding the flood tide, striving for the stream mouth.
“They’re tough little beasties,” says McEnaney, president of the West Coast Whitebaiters Association.
After a surge passes upstream, he lifts his scoop net to reveal a small handful of writhing, gelatinous whitebait. He tips them into a pail, where they join more of their kind—enough for maybe three fritters. They migrate still, eyes glinting like tiny stars in their orbit round the bucket.
McEnaney has been doing this for 30 years. So has his partner, Jan, who’s tending her net 30 metres upstream. She likes to set up a few hours before the tide, and usually lingers a few more after it.
“I’m perfectly happy,” she says. “I’ve got my phone, I’ve got Facebook.”
And so it is across this exquisite coast. In the middle of August, ’baiters paid their fees to the West Coast Regional Council to secure a claim on some coveted reach of river. Many will live out the season beside their net, in caravans, baches, or motorhomes, like Des and Jan. The more-permanent installations, called stands, on premium fishing grounds are now fetching phenomenal prices: up to $60,000 apiece along the Mōkihinui, and in excess of $100,000 in South Westland, says McEnaney. That’s not including annual consent fees.
“It’s like the Auckland housing market down there,” he says. “People spend big money, which pushes the market up. It’s out of kilter. They believe that once they’ve done all this, they’ll make a killing.”
Some house advertisements throw a whitebait stand into the deal—the Coast real-estate equivalent of a blue-chip Auckland school zone. But this bonanza is built on a failing commodity. The whitebait catch is made up of the juveniles of five fish species, all galaxiids, and according to the Department of Conservation, four of those five are now in some degree of trouble.
This atrophy has been deduced by crunching more than 34,000 data points—each one a physical sighting—on the New Zealand Freshwater Fish Database. It predicts that the giant kōkopu will likely be extinct before 2020, and the banded kōkopu by 2023. The database hasn’t recorded a shortjaw kōkopu in two years, consistent with its modelled meeting with oblivion, but there have been confirmed recent sightings by others. At this rate, some say, all whitebait species will be gone by 2034, and that takes no account of land-use intensification or worsening water quality.
At the same time, there is nothing to stop anyone selling whitebait. As far as the Inland Revenue Department (IRD) is concerned, recreational fishers don’t pay any tax on income from “the occasional kilo or two to friends and family”. Beyond that, ‘white gold’ offers another income stream—which makes it awkward for writers roaming the riverbeds hoping to talk to whitebaiters for a story. IRD insists it doesn’t have tax officials out there in mufti, but that doesn’t wash with the locals, who are disclosing absolutely nothing. Fishing spots and catches are the stuff of utmost secrecy—and that, says McEnaney, is part of the problem.
“I’m trying to overcome that, because we need that catch information.”
Because there are no catch limits on whitebait, there is no obligation on anyone to report their hauls. Whitebait are not protected under the Wildlife Act, because, thanks to careless syntax, the Act doesn’t consider fish to be animals.
DOC has a responsibility to protect the whitebait fishery, but not the fish themselves—meaning that introduced trout enjoy more legal protection than native galaxiids. (It’s illegal, for instance, to sell trout.)
Just stop to think about that. Four of these fish are tipped to be extinct by the time your toddler reaches university. We know that adult galaxiids are disappearing, and we have only a weak handle on population recruitment. We have no idea how many are being caught, nor which species. Yet there’s no limit on recreational and commercial catches. In short, we cannot tell whether the whitebait fishery is sustainable or not. We don’t even know how big that fishery is.
Out at sea, marine fisheries have been subject to a quota management system since 1986, a regime governments have lauded ever since as “world-leading fisheries management”. Research levies on the fishing industry help to fund critical research into stock assessments, catch limits and fishing impacts. Not so here on land. Those that profit from the whitebait fishery pay not a cent towards its upkeep or understanding.
We’re sleepwalking towards a collapse, says freshwater ecologist Mike Joy, a senior lecturer at Massey University. Even just knowing how many juveniles survive to adulthood would help.
“There are thousands and thousands of whitebaiters, and all that information goes absolutely nowhere. Nobody collects it, so we only have a tiny amount of data on the juvenile runs.”
McEnaney agrees: “They don’t know how many eggs are hatched, how many fish go out to sea, or how many juveniles survive. We need to know how many are coming back to breed—that’s vital.”
In the absence of data, anecdote and hindsight take centre stage. According to some, 2015 was a bad season, and 2016 was worse. Others, such as McEnaney, contend that while last year was a bad one on the Coast, Cantabrians took record hauls.
The person who knows the most about the fate of both juveniles and adults is probably Mike Hickford, a research associate in marine ecology at the University of Canterbury.
He says that most galaxiid eggs survive long enough to hatch—about 80 per cent—but once the larvae reach the sea, the odds plummet.
“The vast majority of those larvae—and I’m talking above 99 per cent—die out there. That’s not unusual for fish. That’s why they release so many eggs. It’s a numbers game—the more you pump out, the more might come back.”
Only two studies have estimated the chances of returning whitebait slipping past the fishers’ nets, but that limited research suggests they’re pretty good: upwards of 80 per cent.
“They might slip past when the fishers can’t catch them, pre-dawn or after dusk,” says Hickford. “Or the river might be dirty.”
If four out of five juveniles succeed in returning to the rivers where they were born, where are all the adult galaxiids? We don’t know—but fishing probably isn’t to blame.
“A couple of rivers on the West Coast are closed to whitebaiting,” says Hickford, “but they’re not overflowing with īnanga. The vast majority reach a river system and die, and we’re not too sure why. Maybe they get eaten, or maybe there’s some density-dependent resource pressure—perhaps they starve.”
The whitebait run is a rare inversion in nature. Ordinarily, everything is lost from a river system to the sea: nutrients, carbon, soil. But when juvenile whitebait return, they bring vital energy back with them, such that whole ecosystems rely on them.
There’s no shortage of hungry predators waiting for them, says Hickford—herons, shags and gulls. Eels, he says, take a huge toll, particularly on spawning adults.
Then there are trout. Studies show that when trout turn up, galaxiids vanish. A simple exclosure experiment in 2004 revealed that the more trout in a system, the fewer galaxiids. “There’s very good evidence that trout not only consume large numbers of whitebait, but they also modify the behaviour of whitebait: where they spend their time; how conspicuous they are; where and when they feed,” says Hickford. “It’s a shock to me that we know these things about this introduced predator, and yet it’s never spoken about. The elephant has already filled this room and is starting to come out the door. Trout seem to be above the law—nobody’s prepared to touch them.”
Then there’s habitat loss. New Zealand has destroyed more than 90 per cent of its wetlands—the marshes, bogs, fens and swamps that giant kōkopu used to call home. Bush-clad banks, the sort preferred by koaro, and shortjaw and banded kōkopu, survive only on conservation land.
These species nominally spawn in estuaries, but studies of galaxiids in the Waikato River, which analysed chemical traces in their otoliths, or ear bones, determined that a majority of upland fish there have never returned to the coast, even though there’s nothing theoretically stopping them.
“They have access to the sea, but they’re not using it,” says Joy, “and I suspect that’s because of the state of the Waikato River.”
Spawning grounds, too, have suffered. Īnanga doggedly return to the same places to spawn, even if their grassy banks have been replaced by paddocks or turned into waterside retail developments. They will try to lay their eggs anyway.
That’s why, says Joy, bullish claims about huge whitebait runs are missing the point.
“It’s all about the adults, and it’s their decline that’s of most concern. We’re seeing them disappear all over the show.”
Because these species pump out so many eggs, it’s possible for them to spawn big runs while teetering on the brink of extinction.
“So the size of the whitebait run is no reliable indication of the health of the species,” says Joy.
One thing’s for sure: nobody’s filling up their bathtubs anymore, or using whitebait as fertiliser or chicken feed. Most agree that whitebait are in trouble, but there’s discord over what to do about it.
For some, it’s blindingly obvious. An unregulated commercial fishery for four threatened species is madness.
“I don’t understand why it’s still allowed. People don’t spend $100,000 on a whitebait stand just because they fancy a feed—they do it because they make big money,” says Joy. “The easiest thing we could do is to stop commercial whitebaiting. That would take some pressure off.”
“That’s a non-starter,” counters McEnaney. “There’s big demand, and big money, for commercial whitebait. If the supply dries up, the price will go up. The black market will fly, and we won’t be able to control it. There are just too many streams on the West Coast. You’d run out of policemen.”
Others have suggested a quota system, such as the one that governs many marine fish, but again, McEnaney is sceptical: “There’s the problem of practicability. It’s been suggested that the Ministry for Primary Industries should take this over from the Department of Conservation, but I think that DOC’s doing a very good job.”
He says a better option would be to untangle whitebait rules that are inconsistent across the country. As it stands, West Coasters are allowed a shorter season than the rest.
“We’re more tightly regulated than in the rest of the country, so it would make sense to base regulations upon the West Coast ones. There would be a significant conservation gain.”
I observe that Coasters have nothing to lose from that proposal.
“Yes,” he allows, “my colleagues in the North Island will probably want to shoot me.”
The problem, says Hickford, is that we’re trying to manage five different species with a single regime.
“These five species are closely related, but they’re quite different in their life histories. So, managing them as a single fishery is really quite difficult.”
No matter where you fish, or when, says Hickford, around 90 per cent of the whitebait in your bucket will be īnanga.
“Banded kōkopu and kōaro—they’ll be the ones climbing up the side of your bucket—make up seven or eight per cent each, and giant kōkopu less than one per cent. You’d be lucky to get a single shortjaw kōkopu in that bucket.”
Mike Joy suspects it wasn’t always that way, but īnanga are dominant by default—the last fish swimming, so to speak.
“In the past, it would have been dominated instead by kōkopu, especially giant kōkopu. But with all the wetland loss, we’ve wiped out so much of their habitat that we’ve altered the makeup of the whitebait runs. Most of our lowland farmed waterways don’t have galaxiids in them anymore, except for īnanga, which are very tolerant of pretty much anything.”
Giant kōkopu can live three or four decades; the others may live for one, says Hickford.
“As far as we can tell, they spawn multiple times. That means you can have populations with very different age structures. In good years, you can see quite big cohorts recruited into the giant-kōkopu population, for instance, so if you were to stop fishing them, there would be a benefit—you could smooth that out. But they don’t make up much of the whitebait catch.”
On the other hand, most īnanga live for only a year—so a moratorium wouldn’t work for them.
“They go to sea for six months, they develop for six months, they mature, they spawn and then they die,” says Hickford. “If you stopped fishing īnanga for a year, maybe in six months time you’d get a really big spawn, but there’d be no residual effect, because they’ll still all go out to sea, where the majority of them will die anyway. So you can’t accumulate biomass by not fishing them.”
Rather, so many īnanga juveniles return to the system that it can probably sustain a fishery, says Hickford.
Whether it can sustain the fishery we’ve got is another matter. Though we don’t know how many people are fishing, one thing is clear: there are lots more fishers lining the banks, and increasingly, they’re using ruthlessly efficient devices, such as the Southland sock net.
While scoop netters stay home on windy days, or after heavy rains—when they can’t see their prey—sock netters just keep fishing. All they need do is set their net once and leave it for four or five hours. It’s the whitebait equivalent of drift-netting.
“It would be very useful to have data on how people are choosing to fish,” says Hickford.
Which is why he’s convinced that whitebaiting should require a licence, as trout fishing does, covering specific regions or rivers.
“The real benefit of a licence,” he says, “is that it will give us an idea of fishing effort, and the methods used. You’re not going to get any information about how much they’re catching—whitebaiters are notorious liars—but it will give you some information you can use to manage the fishery.”
Freshwater advocates have been arguing for action on whitebait for years, but agencies are gun-shy. Be they moratoria, quotas, licences or closures, protection measures will be fiercely resisted. For starters, many fishers consider whitebaiting to be their birthright. People have invested heavily in white gold and rely on the seasonal income it brings. Inevitably, ’baiters will insist they’re not the biggest problem, and there’s little in the scant research to prove them wrong.
But in March 2017, environmental scientist Kyleisha Foote took a petition to Parliament with 3000 signatures calling for an immediate end to commercial harvesting. West Coast-Tasman MP Damien O’Connor took it seriously: “If we just carry on allowing large-scale commercial operations without any regulations, it’s likely to have an adverse effect. Whether it’s a ban on commercial, or some serious restrictions, something needs to happen and it needs to happen reasonably quickly.”
That ball is arcing inexorably towards DOC’s court. Freshwater technical adviser Jane Goodman says it’s unfortunate that the whitebaiting regulations were written without anticipation of commercial-scale harvesting. “I’m not necessarily saying that we’ll be reviewing the legislation, but it’ll be a case of going through the rules and regulations and thinking about what we could do better. By 2020, we’re going to be looking at options.”
If the models are correct, that will come too late for the giant kōkopu, and the shortjaw kōkopu, and will be too little for the banded kōkopu.
We need to act right now, says Joy, across all fronts: get our waterways cleaned up, restore spawning habitat, remove the physical barriers—dams, weirs, floodgates, culverts—to migrating īnanga, and stop the commercial trade in a threatened native species.
“We keep concentrating on single issues in isolation, but fixing all those problems together will have so many other benefits, not just for fish, but for people,” he says.
Meanwhile, Des McEnaney scoops another palmful of viscid fry from his net. There’s maybe another half-hour of baiting before the waves start washing clean over the bar and into the stream, and that will be it for the day.
“Whitebaiters themselves know that things have to improve,” he tells me, “and they want to be a part of that improvement. So it’s a matter of bringing all the parties together. Let’s meet in the middle and work the damn thing out.”