To: Hon Eugenie Sage, Minister of Conservation
Date: 15 May 2018
As you are aware, the New Zealand Conservation Authority (the Authority) has ongoing concerns about the future for whitebait (comprising five native galaxiid species). Our concerns are shared by several conservation boards. Last year the Authority provided advice to the previous Minister (attached) and requested the Director-General of DOC to take action on matters relating to the long-term viability and effective stewardship of all whitebait species, some of which are classed as threatened. To date, no significant action has been taken, in part because the Department has had to meet other pressing Ministerial priorities and lacks resources for this work. We have also appraised the new Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment of the situation and asked him to consider whitebait as a priority area for investigation.
Whitebaiting is important to many New Zealanders – a taonga and a treasured recreational activity, but there are questions about the sustainability of the catch.
At the April 2018 meeting of the Authority, we had presentations about whitebait from two scientists, Dr Mike Hickford and Dr Cindy Baker. These presentations, and the discussions which followed, were very useful in clarifying and confirming our opinion about actions that should be taken. It is clear that whitebait face a set of challenges, including loss of spawning habitat, blockage of fish passage and possible overharvesting. There is increasing anecdotal evidence of indiscriminate and large catches of whitebait for commercial gain, but no current information about the size of the catch. There is also no information about the size and trends of the different whitebait populations around New Zealand.
In the light of these concerns, we consider that a concerted and focused programme of action is urgently needed. We have the following recommendations:
- A regulatory review should be undertaken, including how the Department could coordinate with MPI, Ministry for the Environment, local authorities and iwi to develop a logical approach to whitebait management, including monitoring and compliance. Iwi should be involved from the outset and whitebaiters consulted.
- An important consideration of the regulatory review should be the feasibility of introducing licensing for whitebaiting and compliance mechanisms to ensure whitebait stands are legally compliant. The purpose of licensing is to support the collection of catch data and control indiscriminate levels of harvesting for proprietary gain. Both of these measures will support improved fisheries management.
- As well, a statistically designed monitoring programme should be introduced to provide robust regional data on whitebait populations, catches, and trends across time. This could be supported by working collaboratively with whitebaiters to obtain long-term catch records and perspectives. Regional data are necessary because of the nature of whitebait migrations and they may be able to be aggregated to provide an overall national picture of whitebait population trends and health.
- Several mechanisms should be considered to control whitebait harvesting. These could include permits, commercial catch limits (i.e. quota) or banning the sale of whitebait, restricting the use of indiscriminate fishing techniques (e.g. the ‘Southland Sock’), and shortening the length of the whitebait season. Management should be considered at the regional scale, based on research findings.
- A research plan should be developed to underpin evidence-based policies to conserve whitebait and support a sustainable fishery. This plan should identify gaps and priorities so that research by third parties (such as universities and CRIs) can be coordinated with the Department’s efforts. Funding of monitoring and research could be partly supported by any income from licences.
- Coordinated communications – the Department, regional councils and MPI - are needed to further raise public awareness of threats to whitebait. It is essential to have active community support to improve habitat, ensure responsible catch levels, and conserve these precious native species for future generations.