National | Conservation

Whitebait: New rules as experts warn species face extinction

New rules have been introduced to halt the collapse of the country’s whitebait population ahead of next week's season launch.

The regulations include upstream limits where fishing is only allowed if water levels are affected by the tide, and new refuges in the Abel Tasman and Fiordland National Parks.

Conservation Minister Kiri Allan says the regulations herald “a more equitable fishery, easing the pressure on whitebait species while providing better alignment and consistency of fishing rules across the country.’’

The rules are the result of a two year consultation period, among them are new restrictions on fishing methods.

“Whitebait are taonga, mahinga kai for Māori and a valuable part of Aotearoa New Zealand’s indigenous biodiversity.

“No one wants to see whitebait disappear; they are part and parcel of our food heritage, with at least one annual festival celebrating the treasured delicacies,” Allan said.

Four of the six whitebait species in Aotearoa are now threatened or at risk of extinction. Attempts to curb the decline will be rolled out over the next three seasons.

In 2022, the season will be shortened to September 1 through to October 30, however, the Chatham Islands will retain their separate fishing season.

Changes to fishing methods for 2021, include:

-Screens are now the only lawful diversion device and are limited to 3 metres maximum length, except when used from stands.

-There is a minimum distance of 20 metres between fixed fishing gear, except when used from stands and only one fishing net can be used from stands.

-The maximum length of all fishing gear can also not exceed a quarter of a channel’s width.

Allan says DOC is focusing on other efforts to prevent decline of whitebait, including ‘habitat loss, environmental degradation, impeded fish passage within river systems, loss of spawning sites and introduced fish species.’

“We all have a role to play in making sure whitebait don’t become just a memory to hand down to the next generation,” Allan said.

The whitebait season opens on August 15. Information on the new regulations are available on DOC's website.