Whitebait has always been known as a New Zealand delicacy and traditional kai with many kiwis eagerly awaiting the season where the juvenile fish arrive each year to swim upstream.
Whitebaiting season began on 15th August this year.
Fisherman are allowed to catch our "white gold" even though whitebait stocks are at critical levels. The fish are native to New Zealand and most species are listed as endangered, yet they are allowed to be fished commercially and there are no set catch limits.
I became aware of the plight of our whitebait populations during a paper I took on 'New Zealand Environments' where we were to research a native species. Being passionate about the ocean (which wasn't an area to choose from but rivers were), I chose our native freshwater fish species - galaxiidae.
In New Zealand, the galaxiids (so called because of the patterns on their skin, which resemble a galaxy of stars) are more commonly known as whitebait, but this actually only encompasses 5 species, of which there are currently ~26. Only two of the species, the Inanga and Koaro, are not endemic to New Zealand, and currently eighty percent of these species are listed as critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable status (2017 DoC report).
Galaxiidae are both diadromous (spending some of their time out at sea) and non-diadromous (freshwater only). The breeding cycle of the diadromous galaxiids sees them migrate downstream in autumn and on the spring high tide the females lay their eggs. As the tide recedes, the eggs are washed onto the nearby shores of estuaries. The eggs are then exposed to the atmosphere for the coming weeks and depending on the conditions and the tides, they hatch within two to four weeks where the fry (young fish) are then washed out to sea on the next spring high tide.
The juvenile fish (what is known as whitebait) spend winter out at sea, returning in spring to swim upstream to mature. The dorsal fins of galaxiids are located at the rear of their bodies, which are used for propulsion to allow them to have rapid acceleration for short periods, helping them to swim through rapids upstream - even waterfalls don’t seem to be a problem for these small fish as they manage to climb using their fins to hold the rocks. They can climb surprisingly high using this technique, allowing them to get further upstream.
So, what are the threats to our native fresh water fish and why do I think that we need to stop commercial whitebaiting?
Over the last 100 years, New Zealand has lost approximately 85% to 90% of its wetlands, which has had a significant impact on the galaxiid population. Habitat loss due to drainage, deforestation and the intensification of land use is thought to be the biggest factor contributing to the loss of the species. Where waterways have been altered and/or dams and pipes put in place, it has made it difficult for the galaxiids to continue their journey up stream or additionally, it allows access for new fish species to be introduced into the environment that can create competition for the native fish or allows them to become trout food.
Water degradation can arise if stock ‘runoff’ is allowed to enter the water, which can cause a change in the water quality of the waterways. This can see the streams become uninhabitable for the fish to live in due to poor quality. Vegetation is an important feature of the galaxiids environment as it provides them cover for protection and attracts the flies and other invertebrates they feed on and much of the vegetation around waterways has been removed. Aquatic weeds have also been wreaking havoc on New Zealand’s waterways and on the habitats of these fish by altering the ecology of their environments and strangling out native species of plants.
Remember, 80% of the 26 species are currently listed as critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable. Habitat loss or modification, water degradation and predation are all major factors in their decline which is compounded by the fact we allow commercial fishing of these juvenile fish with no catch limits set in place. Additionally, as the fish caught are juveniles, we are unable to distinguish which species are caught.
To give our native species a fighting chance of survival, we need to protect them and allow their populations an opportunity to recover. There are many things that need to happen in order for this to be possible but we should not cause further stress by allowing them to be fished freely each year.
Whitebait is the only endangered species you see on the average menu, something Forest and Bird’s Cohen says is morally and practically wrong and I must say, I strongly agree with him.
So New Zealand, I'm sorry to say it but please, no more whitebait fritters!