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.
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.
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.
1. On the riverbank
Rangers on the riverbank are recording any whitebaiting activity they see using a whitebaiter activity data 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.
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.
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: www.doc.govt.nz/whitebaiting