Whitebait Season Changes Disliked By Many Whitebaiters 2022

Whitebait Season Changes Disliked By Many Recreational Whitebaiters

by Allan Burgess

The new whitebait season changes are disliked by many recreational whitebaiters. For the first time in decades, the whitebait regulations for 2022 were significantly changed. For many years the season started on the 15th of August and ran until the 30th of November. A period of 3 1/2 months or 15 weeks. The season has now been shortened to just 8 weeks. Most of the recreational whitebaiters that I have spoken to don’t like it. 

The reason given by the Department of Conservation for the dramatic shortening of the season is to conserve the whitebait fishery.  

From a fisheries management perspective obviously shortening the length of the season by almost 50 per cent is going to conserve whitebait. However, such measures must take into account the views of all the parties involved. It looks very much like the views of recreational whitebaiters were way down the pecking order when this decision was made. 

It was amusing to read in the media that Department of Conservation officials agreed with the decision to make such drastic cuts. They are, after all, highly unlikely to publicly express an opinion that is completely at odds with that of their employer.  

There is an implied inference that anyone who disagrees with such drastic conservation measures doesn’t give a stuff about the survival of the fishery.  

What other options were at the disposal of the Department of Conservation? 

  • Making it illegal to sell whitebait the same as trout.
  • Outlawing commercial fishing for whitebait.
  • Outlawing the commercial export of whitebait.
  • Improving whitebait habitat.
  • Improving river flows and water quality.

What the ideal whitebait habitat looks like Hapuka Estuary Wildlife Sanctuary.

The simple answer is that these other options were consigned to the “too hard basket”. It is much easier to simply hit the recreational whitebaiter. The five alternatives I have mentioned would all cause a substantial financial hit to numerous parties and encumber the Department of Conservation and the government in costly legal action.

Whitebait Season Changes Miss The Target

We see similar thinking going on in this country with regard to the road toll. Speeding is just one factor in New Zealand’s appalling number of road deaths. According to Waka Kotahi – the New Zealand transport agency:  

Flexible road safety barriers catch vehicles before they hit something harder – like a pole, tree or oncoming car. 

Flexible road safety barriers are installed down the middle of a road to prevent head-on collisions or along the side of the road to help stop run-off-road crashes. 

If you hit a flexible barrier, the steel cables flex, slowing down your vehicle and keeping it upright. The barriers absorb the impact of the crash so you and the people with you, don’t. 

They’re a cost-effective infrastructure treatment that can reduce the number of people killed or seriously injured in crashes by 75 per cent”. 

The cost of lowering the speed limit is relatively cheap and mostly entails sending someone out in a van to remove the old signage and replace it with new ones showing the lower limits, regardless of the inconvenience it causes to law-abiding motorists. Obviously, this is a much less expensive option than the installation of flexible road safety barriers, getting drunks off our roads, and the like. Fiddling with the road signs doesn’t seem to have much impact on the road toll.  

Returning to recreational whitebaiting, in my experience, most of the participants are older retired folks who are not likely to participate in street marches protesting the new regulations shortening the length of the season.  

Whitebaiting in Christchurch’s Heathcott River. Photograph courtesy of Peter Langlands.

Indeed, reaching retirement age and finally having the time to go whitebaiting is something of a Kiwi “rite of passage”. For many, it represents an opportunity for social interaction with other like-minded souls down at the river. I wonder if the Department of Conservation has given much weight to such sentiment.  

Elderly people can and do place sock nets in the water as the tide retreats. Then settle down in their folding chairs to drink cups of tea and eat homemade scones as they wait several hours for the new tide to hopefully carry sufficient whitebait to their net for a few dinners. 

Those who have actually spent time trying to catch the wriggling little whitebait will tell you that most days the catch is hardly worth the effort. Usually, you will only get several good days in a month. The rest of the time the weather is against you, the river is in flood, the moon is in the wrong phase, you have to go to work, or the whitebait are just making themselves scarce, and you should have been here last Tuesday.

How the whitebait fishing regulations were changed from 2021 onwards and what the differences are. On the DoC website.  

You often hear the old stories about how our grandparents would catch so much whitebait they would dig it into the garden as fertilizer. Back in those days people didn’t have deep freezers in their garages. The only way to store whitebait was by canning. It must also be remembered that back then there were more coastal swamps which are prime whitebait breeding areas, river flows were higher, our rivers were less polluted, and there was not the intensive lowland farming we see today. 

Finally, I wish to leave you with a quote by Steve Veail from “Misguided, Ill-conceived DOC’s Whitebait Management”. You can read the full text here on the Council of Outdoor Recreation Associations of New Zealand website. 

“DOC has been very heavy-handed in its management of recreational fishing verging on the edge of attempting to destroy this traditional New Zealand recreational activity”.

This post was last modified on 14/01/2023 4:52 pm

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