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October 8, 2018 | by  | in Environment | [ssba]

In Our Environment

John stands teetered on the edge of the Mokau river in Taranaki, tending his hand held net. A rain of insects litters down over the water, which is lined by wooden huts. John lifts up a long mescaline sock, and the net is full of tiny fish no bigger than a hairpin. Gelatinous, full stop mouth, galaxy of stars speckled along their sides. Whitebait season is at its peak, having started on the 15 August and running until November 30. We are in the midst of a fervent “white rush”, in which whitebait are a sought after delicacy. Just a kg will cost you $110. A tiny hut on a whitebait river has sold for as much as $100,000. This white market has swelled to rise our insatiable appetite for endangered species.
Whitebait are the juveniles of five species of freshwater fish: giant kōkopu, banded kōkopu, shortjaw kōkopu, inanga, and kōaro. These fish belong to the group galaxiidae, so called because of the patterns of their skin. Today, the population has ebbed to the brink of collapse. A recent Department of Conservation report lists the īnanga, kōaro, and giant kōkopu as at risk (the same status as brown kiwi), and the shortjaw kōkopu as threatened. At this rate, some say, all whitebait species will be gone by 2034, and that takes no account of land-use intensification or worsening water quality.
Whitebait shift out towards the ocean as larvae. Then, as juveniles, they migrate back to freshwater, and here they are harvested. We then charge a premium, and serve them frittered across the country. This is surely the antithesis to sustainability. There are no laws to protect native fish, albeit one, which protects a fish that has been extinct since 1930. Whitebait are not protected under the Wildlife Act, because the Act doesn’t consider fish to be animals. Perhaps this reflects a lacuna in perspective where our empathy for native fauna extends as far as a birds and reptiles. The only living freshwater fish that is protected by law is introduced trout; ironically, a chief predator of whitebait. So, for several months the streams of this nation throng with white baiters. But there’s is no catch-limit on whitebait and no regulation around commercial sales. There is no data as to how much we are catching and by whom.
Forest and Bird are calling for a ban on whitebait sales. They cite the general lunacy of having an unregulated fishery for threatened species. Mike Joy has also suggested there should be a ban on commercial sales, recognizing that while many see white baiting as a Kiwi lifestyle birthright, the birthright does not extend to wiping out species. Opponents cry out that monitoring is impractical — there are not enough regulators to wade out among the nets. The truth of this is questionable, considering the efficiency with which we patrol trout. With enough political will, monitoring is indeed possible.
The wipeout of whitebait is a small but important trickle into a great ocean of issues. About 75 percent of our native freshwater fish are listed as threatened or at risk, yet none are protected. Although we have a quota system in place for ocean fishing, global fish stocks are on the decline. It’s that old adage, updated — give a man a net, and he’ll fish till extinction.


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