No one wants to see whitebait go extinct

Department of Conservation —  05/10/2022

Four out of six whitebait species are threatened with extinction. Helen Ough Dealy finds out how rangers on riverbanks, small planes, and the whitebaiters themselves are helping protect our national taonga.

If you can’t measure something, then you can’t help save it. The whitebait fishery is no exception to this rule.

Although DOC has managed the whitebait fishery since the 1990s, we have very little information about how many people are out there whitebaiting, where they fish, why they do it, and what gear they use. All this data will help inform future whitebait fishery management options.

Whitebaiting – Ōkārito River Mouth.
📷: Jo MacPherson

Back in April last year, the Minister of Conservation at the time asked us to gather evidence about the current state of the whitebait fishery. Data gathered over the 2021 and 2022 whitebait seasons would help us better understand the whitebaiting fishery and those directly involved.

We are now two years into a three-year work programme.

Year 1 (2021) involved gathering basic information from across the country to begin building a national picture on whitebaiter numbers, gear, and locations.

Year 2 (2022) builds on the Year 1 findings to scale-up data gathering across the country.

Year 3 (2023) will review the findings and develop options to ensure sustainable management of the fishery into the long term.

Caught whitebait.
📷: Philippe Gerbeaux

Three approaches

We are collecting whitebait fishery data in three different ways, using old school pen and paper, taking high tech aerial photography from small planes, and encouraging whitebaiters to fill-in on-line social surveys.

DOC Ranger with whitebaiter, Bay of Plenty.
📷: Neil Hutton/DOC

1. On the riverbank

Rangers on the riverbank are recording any whitebaiting activity they see using a whitebaiter activity data form.

Whitebaiter activity data collection form.

2. Aerial photography

Some rivers, however, are too remote and difficult for rangers to access. All up it’s far easier and more efficient to use a plane. This technique, taking photographs of South Island rivers from a small, fixed-wing aircraft, was first used to gather whitebait fishery data in 2021 and will be again during the 2022 season.

High resolution pics are captured by flying at 2,000 feet above ground; high enough that no whitebaiter can be identified, but their nets and fishing gear can be. These photos are analysed for numbers of whitebaiters, fishing locations, and types of fishing gear.

Scoop and set nets on the Hokitika river photographed in 2021.

3. Asking whitebaiters about themselves

The third data collection technique is a social survey of whitebaiters. This survey will help us understand who whitebaits, where they do it, and why. Keep an eye out later in the 2022 season for this survey. It will be online via Facebook, the DOC internet site, and handed out to whitebaiters on riverbanks.

What next?

Whether the data collected is from the riverbank, the sky or whitebaiters themselves, the information gathered will help us better understand the whitebait fishery and those that fish. The better the data, the better we’ll be able to support management of a sustainable whitebait fishery into the future.

Find the up-to-date whitebait fishery regulations on the DOC website:

3 responses to No one wants to see whitebait go extinct


    Sounds good but it’s not just the whitebaiters gear etc. It’s also about the spawning habitat degradation. If they can’t maintain the whitebait breeding grounds then this must equally effect the whitebait population even more!

    John Cumberpatch 06/10/2022 at 11:45 am

    Hi, Thursday 6 October 2022. I have just returned from a successful fish at the mouth of the Waimakariri river, Pines Beach. Aside from the snow and 2 degree temperature the white bait were plentiful, as they were last season. In fact this season is shaping up to be the best in the last 20 years with no signs of any decline in the fishery. The start in September saw more whitebait than the usual 15 August start, and I think that by the closure on October 31 everyone will have had plenty of time to catch a few feeds. I will be interested to see how the “Customary Fishing” is treated from 1 November, with the White bait regulations being abused pre-season and during the season.

    John Cumberpatch


      Hi John, great to hear of the good fishing. I read that the fishing in Southland is the worst in many years, perhaps their bait are coming in to the Canterbury rivers? Oceanic currents can affect the movements of the fish I believe.

      Note that the last day of the season is October 30, not Oct 31st.

      Cheers, Nick