Misguided, Ill-conceived DOC’s Whitebait Management

Opinion by Steve Veail


Sub-title:- Whitebait Season 2022   Round Up from a Recreational Perspective

As a whitebaiter on the Waikanae River for the last few years, here are my thoughts and conclusions of the 2022 season as seen by an active whitebaiter, whose highlight each year for the last five years, since retiring has been the 3½ months or 106 days known as “the season”. 

The  Department of Conservation (DOC) implemented a number of far-reaching changes 

However for the 2022 season the Department of Conservation (DOC) shortened the season to less than 2 months or 59 days by “fiddling” with the long standing regulations, in what is seen by all recreational whitebaiters as misguided and ill-conceived.  

DOC did do a consultation process, which seemed to me to be a “divide and conquer” exercise on all whitebaiters  thus splitting them into three different groups i.e  Maori, commercial and recreational whitebaiters. Further division was achieved, by holding a multitude of meetings in different areas .  

The “consultation” process also attracted the “anti-whitebaiters” who have a totally different concept of recreation for New Zealanders.  This approach by DOC makes it impossible to get a general consensus of what all New Zealand recreational whitebaiters viewed. 

Some would say deliberately.  

It certainly very confusing to the participants in the consultation – who put in a lot of effort and time to attend and participate. Most left with the feeling that an agenda was already in process before the actual consultations.    

DOC did provide a consultation document which was based on an assumption of declining whitebait numbers and which clearly indicated habitat loss was the major contributor and recreational fishing was hardly an issue.  Commercial fishing was an issue but I  was  advised it was not being considered as part of that consultation!

Questioned about leaving commercial off the agenda, DOC’s explanation was that was another department,  MPI.   How very convenient! 


Threat to a Traditional New Zealand Recreation  

Indeed without any  proof or facts about recreational whitebait fishing, DOC initially sought to eliminate whitebaiting as a recreational activity all together.

The whitebait fishing regulations had been developed over the years, in association with actual whitebait fishermen, who understood from actual real experience the nature of the fishery.  These had been stable for many years.  

It recognised that by having a season of 3.5 months  during daylight hours allowed the whitebait plenty of months during the year, and a good chance during the season, to get up the river unimpeded by fisherman. It also allowed for some down days off from fishing, from bad weather and resulting poor conditions yet still have plenty of time to be able to fish.   

It allowed for 3 to 4 full moons to occur during the season, which is when the tides are higher and more likely to have the bait entering the river system to start the challenge of life to grow into adult fish.   Trillions of whitebait go up the river, but there is only limited space for adult fish. It gives very low odds of fully growing to adult fish, and that only occurs if there is suitable habitat up the river.  Interestingly it is a view held that the whitebait will only  enter a river system if they can smell their own species up in the river system.  If not they will just continue swimming along the coast until they locate their species smell.   

However as a result of DOC’s changes to the whitebait regulations, they halved the number of full moons able to be fished to two, effectively halving the season.  Combined with many unfishable days due to bad weather the season was reduced to the poorest season in living memory.  

No one could recall a worse whitebait season.   

The regulations are a guide for recreational fishing.  They were never intended to manage the commercial fishing of whitebait.  Recreational and commercial are two quite different activities.   Recreational fishing is about pursuing a love of the outdoors, personal satisfaction, and if lucky harvesting some food to share with friends and family.  Commercial whitebaiting is purely about profit.  


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Two different netting of whitebait methods – Set net and Scoop net


Minuscule catch goes to Recreational Fishermen 

Interesting DOC informed me at the consultations that commercial export whitebait was not being reviewed. However it’s likely that is where the significant portion of the annual catches goes.  I’d venture to say that the recreational catch is minuscule in comparison. 

For the last two years whitebait was selling at PaknSave for $160/kg, whereas this year it was reported being sold for $300/kg.   

In a misguided attempt in my opinion the department has eliminated 45 days of recreational activity in an effort to increase adult whitebait fish numbers.   

However the decline in adult whitebait is not the result of recreational fishing, as very few whitebait are needed to be the adult breeding stock.  Rather it is directly related to lost whitebait habitat and poor water quality management.

So much drainage of land in New Zealand, to make way for farming and forestry, has resulted in the elimination of vast tracts of adult whitebait habitat, and degradation of water quality of the nation’s streams. 

Yet DOC never seem to participate in advocating for retaining water flows and quality of water with rivers, such as enhancing the integrity in Water Conservation Orders (WCOs). The deteriorated state of rivers is a major issue which both Labour and the Greens have advocated on at election time. However both parties on this issue have been absent between elections. DOC is completely absent. The Waikanae River is a classic example of a river that’s been left to time to just build up with gravel without any recent intervention.  Four meter boats use to sail up and moor at the Otaihanga boat club in the 1950’s, now you can walk across at low tide not too far above your ankles. 
Some would argue that this is part of the cost to New Zealand to be a primary producing nation with increased urbanisation.  However in my opinion it is more about very poor understanding of development controls associated with land clearing for alternative use. The intensification and expansion of dairying has also accelerated under both the current Labour and previous National governments, which has created further pressure to natural whitebait habitat. 

It is true that significant habitat change and loss mostly occurred in an era when it was never considered.  It is more than likely that the impact of reduced whitebait adult fish numbers now is the direct result of development activities 80 to 140 years ago, when land clearing and deforestation was at its highest intensity, to make way for farming and forestry, definitely resulted in the destruction of a major portion of New Zealand’s whitebait habitats.


Heavy-handed

DOC’s approach in 2022 in my opinion has been very heavy handed towards reducing recreational whitebait fishing.  

It has resulted in most recreational whitebaiters being completely disillusioned with DOC’s management of this public resource.  

The general consensus of the vast majority of recreational whitebaiters is that the regulation changes masterminded by DOC, failed to take into consideration any of the concerns of the recreational whitebaiters.  I believe it has been politically motivated knowing that this minority group of citizens tend to be silent, law abiding, and simply just want to go about enjoying a peaceful relaxing activity, namely whitebaiting ;  meanwhile the Government can dubiously claim they are taking action to make the world better  for adult whitebait.   

Dividing the whitebaiters into several groups ie Maori, Whitebaiters and commercial fishing, means their decision does not have to account to anyone specifically, which allows the instigators of the changes, namely DOC, to follow their own agenda.  

It would appear to me the changes to whitebait regulations only occurred as the department saw it as a low hanging fruit that could be seen as taking action; however it only diverts from the proper accountability for the adult whitebait habitats and national adult whitebait stock numbers.  


Some Ideas

Many other actions could have been done which would have been far more positive towards the management of whitebait stocks, the recreational whitebaiter  and also gained public support.  For example here are a few ideas here:

  1. Actually do the research into improving habitat for adult whitebait.  To do this they need to establish where the habitat areas are and the current stock levels and establish what the level of understocking of adult fish exists.  This must be quantifiable, rather than innuendo.
  2. Consider the removal of all commercial fishing of whitebait.  
    There’s no reason why whitebait is not treated the same way as trout, which is illegal to sell.
    A serious issue here I expect for DOC is where fishing concessions have been issued by DOC, such as stands for a fee, where they may now have to consider the question of compensation for loss of profits from commercial whitebait fishing.  It is understood whitebait in addition to supplying the local market, is also exported to overseas markets.  Surely its only reasonable to know the quantities sold over the last 20 years, and establish why it has been allowed to exist.  There may be a valid reason such as the quantities are sustainable, however with the doubling in price this year at retail indicates supply has been decreasing this year.
  3. Work with the recreational whitebaiters to develop positive management results for the fishery. For example  seek positive support from the recreational fisherman by getting them to catch and release live whitebait to designated drop spots where whitebait have a better chance of reaching maturity.  Currently there is no wildlife management being done for whitebait habitat.  If there was then we could expect to see reports and successes.  
  4. Even set up a Whitebait Management Group at a local basis, sourced from local recreational fishermen to manage the local whitebait recreational fishery.  This could include monitoring adult fish, locating adult fish  and most important establishing local stock numbers, local spawning times , their location and monitor bait quantity and frequency in the rivers.  


Government Only Fully Controlled Recreational Activity.

Whitebaiting as a recreation sport is the first and only recreational activity solely controlled by the New Zealand Government.   It is not democratic or in line with the general principles of governing the  people of New Zealand in an egalitarian society upon which the  New Zealand government was established.   

It’s a sad day in New Zealand history where the Government has allowed itself to fully control what people should freely be able to do as a recreation, and limit the traditional harvest food of all citizens of New Zealand. 

Charging a recreational licence fees to whitebait has been mooted.  If this is to occur, it would be the only recreational activity in New Zealand which costs to participate on our own publicly owned land.  

We already pay taxes to run the Government and its departments, and in this case of DOC to manage our resources for recreation and conservation purposes.  We also pay taxes in the form of GST to actually buy equipment, travel costs and accommodation associated with recreational whitebaiting.

New Zealand public lands and resources belong to the people of New Zealand and DOC is simply the public’s current manager appointed by and controlled by the Government for the people.  

Too often we see the department treating resources as their property using phrases like “DOC land”.   Despite “DOC land” being common usage by the department, the public land resources and rivers is not theirs.  They only have the responsibility to manage resources for all of New Zealand.  

DOC has two equal functions in its charter, namely conservation and recreation.   For some reason DOC sees conservation, not as maintaining what currently exists in a natural healthy state but rather the restoration or preservation of yesteryear’s  primeval flora and fauna.   

DOC’s recreational responsibility has the same level of  status as conservation as its function, to make it available to the citizens of New Zealand, being the owners of the public lands, for free use activities i.e.  to foster the use of natural and historic resources for recreation. 

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My actual 2022 season

This year was extremely disappointing.  I fished most days the weather permitted.   Despite being allowed to fish for 59 consecutive days, very few were fishable.  To catch whitebait the conditions such as the moon, high tides, which give more current and winds need to be aligned, for the whitebait to enter into the river to begin the migration to the adult whitebait habitat.  Here at the Waikanae River I fished for 23 days and my total catch was 1.27 kg and averaged 55gm per day.  In comparison the previous year my average was 204 gm/ fishing day, and 409 gm/fishing day the year before.

Most recreational fishermen keep a fishing log, which is their guide for when previous conditions were successful so they can hopefully align their fishing in the upcoming season.  Typically only a few days a month are reasonable catches, with most days being catches of less than 50 whitebait, which are typically returned to the river.  Often we only so few we can actually give names to each bait, or number them for an imaginary sports team.  That’s the recreational whitebaiter’s reality.   Why do we do it?  Well for two reasons, namely hoping for a jackpot, and secondly for the pleasure of being in the outdoors.  No two days are the same.  I have fished in howling 80km winds with googles on to prevent the sand being blown in my eyes.  It was exhilarating, gave an intense feeling of being alive, almost electric, however it is not something you would wish to do every day.  I have fished in the rain, in sunshine and even with snow on the tops of the majestic Tararuas.  I have watched shags catching and swallowing eels, seen a seal play with a flounder in the river for ½ an hour before consuming.  I have spent quite a few hours watching spoonbills feeding up the river’s edge. I have seen the Kahawai jumping about fishing, and even watched a barracoota chasing bait.  I have also met many other fishermen regularly on the river and had lovely chats.  This is what outdoor recreation is all about.  You cannot buy it, you can only experience it.  It is what being a Kiwi recreationalist is all about!

Now the issue of whitebait declining, this appears completely false.  There is local video evidence of the whitebait running in July, and I can report that in November when monitoring the first two weeks after the season I saw more whitebait in the river than I saw all season.  I saw 20 good shoals pass over my spotting boards in one hour, more than I caught all season.  They will also run again sometime between Christmas and February.  The whitebait has plenty of opportunity to get up the river without being caught by fishermen.  Even during the season they have half a day when fishing is not allowed, and even in the allowed period they can easily swim up the middle of the river and evade the shore based fishermen.  

For me November was the best month to fish before it was removed.  The water is warmer and you could fish  in shorts and bare feet.  Again that’s another exciting experience.  The earlier months you need waders to insulate the cold.  November the beach comes alive with swimmers with the advent of summer, and nice blue sky days. 

Now compared to some reported whitebait catches, in particular the South Island my catches seem paltry, however I prefer to fish close to home.  As a recreational fisherman I am looking to harvesting a few feeds and enjoy the pleasure of being in the outdoors.  Here at Waikanae there is a local protocol to not use sock nets, which are efficient traps to catch whitebait , the nets do not involve much supervision.  This was done to make it fairer for the fisherman up river who use the  open up/down nets, which require herding and stealth to catch whitebait.  Other areas such as Otaki River and Te Horo have their own local protocol not to use screens, again with the view of making the fishing more of a level playing field.   Other areas are likely to also have such protocols and their own styles of fishing developed over the years by the local whitebaiters.  I mention this as whitebaiting is actually a community activity and it’s my opinion that DOC fails to recognise this aspect.  DOC sets out its own idea of how whitebaiting is to occur, through regulations which they are attempting to standardise for the whole country.  I suggest that more should be done to encourage and allow local community recreational fishing to regulate their own fishing regions.  I also believe DOC have failed the recreational fishermen by not eliminating commercial fishing, or even recognising that recreational whitebaiting is significantly different to commercial whitebaiting, which is purely for financial returns.   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.

Despite the extremely disappointing 2022 season in terms of harvesting, and being challenged by DOC shortening of the season, and the non-aligned fishing conditions, it was still memorable.  Hopefully DOC review the season length, and at least reinstate the  3.5 months season for recreational whitebait fishing , but I will not hold my breath.  DOC do not seem to listen to the recreational fishermen, rather they appear in my opinion to be pursuing their own agenda more for political reasons.  DOC needs to go back and re-read its Function under the Conservation Act in terms of fostering Recreation. 

 

Footnote

Reference Conservation Act 1987, Sec 7:-

Functions of Department

The functions of the Department are to administer this Act and the enactments specified in Schedule 1, and, subject to this Act and those enactments and to the directions (if any) of the Minister,—

(a)

to manage for conservation purposes, all land, and all other natural and historic resources, for the time being held under this Act, and all other land and natural and historic resources whose owner agrees with the Minister that they should be managed by the Department:

(ab)

to preserve so far as is practicable all indigenous freshwater fisheries, and protect recreational freshwater fisheries and freshwater fish habitats:

(b)

to advocate the conservation of natural and historic resources generally:

(c)

to promote the benefits to present and future generations of—

(i)

the conservation of natural and historic resources generally and the natural and historic resources of New Zealand in particular; and

(ii)

the conservation of the natural and historic resources of New Zealand’s sub-antarctic islands and, consistently with all relevant international agreements, of the Ross Dependency and Antarctica generally; and

(iii)

international co-operation on matters relating to conservation:

(d)

to prepare, provide, disseminate, promote, and publicise educational and promotional material relating to conservation:

(e)

to the extent that the use of any natural or historic resource for recreation or tourism is not inconsistent with its conservation, to foster the use of natural and historic resources for recreation, and to allow their use for tourism:

(f)

to advise the Minister on matters relating to any of those functions or to conservation generally:

(g)

every other function conferred on it by any other enactment.

Section 6(ab): inserted, on 10 April 1990, by section 4 of the Conservation Law Reform Act 1990 (1990 No 31).

 

 

Sec 2

conservation means the preservation and protection of natural and historic resources  for the purpose of maintaining their intrinsic values, providing for their appreciation and recreational enjoyment by the public, and safeguarding the options of future generations

conservation area means any land or foreshore that is—

(a)

land or foreshore for the time being held under this Act for conservation purposes; or

(b)

land in respect of which an interest is held under this Act for conservation purposes

 

 

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7 Responses to Misguided, Ill-conceived DOC’s Whitebait Management

  1. "Inanga" says:

    Why did DOC not cut out commercial exploitation of whitebait? There is a stark difference between bogus “recreational” catching maximum amounts to flog off for money and the true Kiwi whitebaiter who just would like a couple of kgs for the family dinner table.
    Instead DOC targeted the genuine Kiwi whitebaiter and left the rat bag plunderers alone.
    Pathetic by DOC.

  2. Sam Thompson says:

    A main reason is habitat and I cannot recall DOC speaking up about the threats to habitat particularly rivers. The NZ Federation of Freshwater Anglers has carried out research into nitrate levels in freshwater, mainly in Canterbury. It should be noted at this stage, the Federation is a voluntary organisation, DOC is taxpayer funded.
    Nitrate levels are well above toxic to fish levels.
    Why does a volunteer organisation (well done chaps) do the work while DOC does nothing meaningful?
    The other reason is commercial fishing where groups of individuals from cities go to prime whitebait areas, catch big excessive amounts and return to cities to sell the whitebait tax free.
    Come on DOC get off your backsides and show some common sense.

  3. Andrew Abutilon says:

    Woke eco-fundamentalists in DOC and Forest and Bird blame trout as a predator of whitebait. True trout are a predator of whitebait. True eels, kahawai, flounder, mullet, gulls, terns, shags are predators of whitebait. So are people. Eels and shags prey on young trout. Predators benefit the preyed species by removing the sick, the unwary sio the preyed species attains quality.
    Trout have been in NZ for over 150 years. Forget predators. Humans are the problem – commercial white-baiting and habitat destruction by way of forestry (siltation, conversion to acidic, wetland clearance, nitrate poisoning, etc fare the problems. Why can’t DOC see the real picture? Forest and Bird never will. They are in Cuckoo-Land.

  4. Reg Hill says:

    Very interesting read. I like the read.Well done

  5. Fergus O'Malley says:

    Well written thank you Steve Veail.
    DOC are clearly out of their depth and in this case of whitebait management, or should that be mismanagement?

  6. Dave says:

    Personally, I agree with the concept of a shorter season to allow more opportunity for a greater number of whitebait to avoid the nets and go on to breed to protect the future of the fishery. However, I object to the current system (in Canterbury, at least) where a select few, by applying for a cultural harvest permit, are allowed to fish under the regulations that set the season length of previous years. This means that the benefits of the shorter season will not be achieved or will at best be severely compromised. In my opinion all that the new whitebait regulations, in particular the shortened season, has achieved is to provide a select few with an opportunity to have 6 weeks fishing with no competition from other fishers. This is illustrated in the attached photo taken on 9 November showing 1 whitebaiter with a set net at the mouth of The Kaiapoi River and nobody fishing downstream where during the regular season there would have been up to 30 others fishing along McIntosh’s Rocks downstream of this set up.

  7. Jim Simons says:

    This article is well thought out and well written. I particularly like the idea of we whitebaiters undertaking surveys and re-locating part of our catch. If DOC are genuine, they will look at this article and address their own shortcomings regarding whitebait. One of their rangers on the Waikanae River told me that DOC were going to hand out survey forms by the end of last season to get feedback. So far: Zilch, nothing, nada. Whitebaiters deserve to have input into the drastic changes undertaken by Eugenie Sage of Forest and Bird but I’m not holding my breath.

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