Whitebaiters continue to fish Canterbury rivers contaminated with sewage despite being warned by the New Zealand Food Safety Authority (NZFSA) and the Police. Whitebait, fish and shellfish taken from sewage-contaminated rivers, river mouths or estuaries, (including the Waimakariri, Selwyn, Heathcote, Avon, Halswell and Styx rivers), could cause serious illness.
“It is very disappointing whitebaiters have not taken these warnings seriously. Our concern is white baiters are selling their catch, which is most likely contaminated, to unsuspecting restaurants and cafés,” NZFSA acting deputy director general (food safety), Carol Barnao says.
“Our message to whitebaiters is simple: stop putting yourselves and the public at risk.”
"We totally support the NZFSA's message. They are concerned about public health, so we strongly advise whitebaiters to be mindful of what they are saying," said a spokesperson for DOC.
Canterbury Medical Health Officer, Dr. Alistair Humphrey, said whitebaiters were warned by Police during the emergency period but these warnings have gone unheeded.
“If whitebaiters fail to take notice of this second warning and continue to place the public at risk we will be asking the Group Controller, Civil Defence, to use his powers under civil defence legislation to have whitebaiters removed by the police from contaminated rivers.
Refusal to comply with warnings risks the prospect of significant fines or even prison sentences,” Humphrey says.
The penalty for failure to comply with an order made under the Civil defence and Emergency Management Act 1992 include a fine of up to $5000 and a custodial sentence of up to three months.
Cafés and restaurants are also being asked to double-check the origin of any whitebait they are considering buying from suppliers, particularly as the catches from the West Coast have been quite low this season. Restaurant and café owners, and whitebaiters, can also be held liable for causing foodborne illness due to contaminated whitebait.
The whitebait season runs from 1 September until 14 November for the West Coast and from 13 August until 30 November for all other areas in New Zealand, including Canterbury.