New measures introduced to protect whitebait fishery

The changes will be phased in over three seasons.
The changes will be phased in over three seasons. Photo credit: Getty Images

Several new measures to protect the country's whitebait fishery were announced on Wednesday, with the regulations to be phased in over three seasons.

Acting Conservation Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall says the rules will improve the sustainability of threatened species while still allowing Kiwis to continue the tradition of catching the fish in their local rivers.

"Whitebait are a valuable part of the indigenous biodiversity of Aotearoa, and are taonga and mahinga kai for Māori," Dr Verrall said.

"However, four of the six whitebait species are threatened or at risk of extinction. While fishing pressure is a contributing factor, habitat loss, environmental degradation, impeded fish passage within river systems, loss of spawning sites and introduced fish species are also impacting whitebait numbers."

She said whitebait regulations haven't been reviewed since the 1990s and called the changes "long overdue".

"We want to ensure the whitebait fishery survives and thrives, for all New Zealanders, while maintaining long-held traditions and encouraging responsible fishing practices."

The changes will be phased in over three seasons, and Dr Verrall said the immediate impact on the majority of fishers would be "minimal".

"People will still be using the same gear and fishing in the same places when the season opens.

"The changes that are being made will better align practices nationwide, improve the long-term sustainability of the fishery and support recreational, low volume fishers. They do not affect customary fishing rights."

2021 season, changes will include:

  • Fishing will be prohibited within 20 metres of structures such as weirs and groynes where fish congregate.
  • Screens will be the only lawful diversion device and limited to three-metre maximum length.
  • The rule that only one net can be used when fishing from a stand, will be extended to all of New Zealand.
  • The maximum incursion of fishing gear (excluding stands) into a waterway, will be one-quarter of its width, nationwide.
  • The minimum fixed distance between fixed fishing gear (not stands) will be 20 metres.
  • Fishing can only occur in estuaries and near river mouths nationwide. This is already the case on the West Coast.
  • More whitebait refuges in water bodies that flow out of Abel Tasman and Fiordland national parks will help to protect whitebait populations, similar to whitebait refuges already in place on the West Coast.
  • The proposal is to extend the current exclusion in place from Yates Point to Puysegur Point, to also include the South Coast as far as Waitutu River mouth.  Martins Bay (even though it is within Fiordland National Park) is not being proposed as a refuge.

2022 season, changes will include:

  • The season to shorten to 1 Sept – 30 October for all New Zealand

2023 season, changes will include:

  • Overall length limit for fishing gear of six metres for all New Zealand

'We must go further'

The Green Party responded to the changes by saying while they are a good start, "we must go further, faster, to protect our native taonga".

"The Greens are disappointed the Government has progressed so few of the original DoC proposals for a range of whitebait refuges to protect vulnerable whitebait species," said Eugenie Sage, the Green Party's conservation spokesperson.

"Four of the six native fish species in the whitebait catch are threatened or at risk of extinction, and we need to act with urgency to halt their decline.

"The proposals for refuges in rivers downstream of Abel Tasman and Fiordland National Parks are welcome – but they don't go far enough."

Sage said "very few rivers or reaches of rivers" across the country are closed to whitebaiting and called for "significantly more safe havens where whitebait can migrate upstream and breed free from fishing pressure".