Whitebait stirring the waters in Canterbury as profit-seekers push out locals

There are ripples on Canterbury rivers over the Kiwi delicacy whitebait, as profit-seekers push out local whānau.  

Fetching over $100/kg, fishermen in the area say prices surged during the 2021 America's Cup when whitebait became popular as a staple food.  

Long before this though, inaka (whitebait) was one of the major seasonal food sources for the South Island iwi, Kāi Tahu.  

These fish species, alongside tuaki (cockles), pātiki (flounder) and tuna (eel) thrived in the many braided rivers and lush wetlands of north Canterbury.  

It's the home of the Kāi Tahu hapū, Kāi Tūāhuriri, but they have historically been blocked from their waterways. Now, there are new challenges. 

Whitebait is a tasty and popular delicacy for several people in New Zealand.
Whitebait is a tasty and popular delicacy for several people in New Zealand. Photo credit: The Hui

Trout and salmon were introduced by colonial settlers in the 1800s and given special legal protections. 

Kupenga (nets) used by Māori whitebaiters were banned.  

Mahinga kai expert Makarini Rupene (Kāi Tūāhuriri) said this massively affected his ancestors. 

"Our whānau were being prosecuted for catching trout in the net," he said. "We were being isolated and blocked from access to these rivers, our main ancestral harvesting areas." 

Then there were broken promises by the Crown to keep reserves in these harvesting areas aside for hapū, as part of land deals such as Kemp's Deed.  

After a long-fought battle, in 1997, Kāi Tahu finally had their rights to mahika kai (harvesting areas) recognised in their Treaty settlement.  

And three years ago came a new development for Kāi Tūāhuriri - a customary whitebait season. 

"We start earlier than the recreational and we finish later than the recreational. And that gives us that time to carry on our customs of being who we are in our place to pass on to our future generations," Rupene said.  

Rupene, along with Te Marino Lenihan, are part of the hapū team of eight deciding who gets a permit.

"What we're experiencing is family members who have lost connection to river and to community, ringing up with legitimate whakapapa, and saying, 'Can I have a permit?' And the answer at the moment is no, we need to privilege those who have those connections and encourage those who do not to come back home," Lenihan said.  

"So those whānaus that still hold ahi kā, they're the whānaus that will all have access to a permit," Rupene said. 

Pauline Crofts, who is in her 80s, is the permit holder on behalf of her whānau. She got a customary permit last year, and will be back on the water this month.  

"It's like going to the marae, you've always gone and that's something you just keep doing," she said. "You take the kids, you take the mokos there." 

She only fishes during the customary season as "it's too hard to get on the river" during the recreational period.  

Her son Joseph Hullens is a passionate whitebaiter and environmentalist.  

"It's in our DNA. It's in our whakapapa. Mahinga kai is what we're all about. We were a mobile race. We followed the food resources wherever they may be." 

They fish at Three Streams, upriver of the Kaiapoi. 

It's a lot quieter than at the mouth of the Waimakariri River, where, during the peak of the recreational season (September 1 - October 30) over 100 whitebaiters have been reported daily. 

This is one of the reasons for the customary season.  

"Everyone with dollars in their eyes, people are out there to make money and it really impacts on being able to get on the awa, and just catch a simple feed," Rupene said.

"We get pushed out of spots we can't fish, we're competing against syndicates that are rotating around the clock," he said.

On top of that, permit holders have had pushback during the customary season. 

"There's been a lot of hate, a lot of hate from certain parts of the community," Rupene said. "Straight out racists, you know, horrible threats.

"There's a really large element of the community that they don't know New Zealand's history. They've only had the propaganda they've been taught over the last 170 years. And they don't truly know how us as Māori and mana whenua have been impacted by Crown regulation." 

Despite this, the hapū are firmly focused on getting kaumātua back on the water, and tamariki getting a chance to learn whitebaiting.  

"This is about us, living the life our ancestors wanted us to live. And we haven't had the freedom to do that," Lenihan said. 

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