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Where have all the whitebait gone?

Where have all the whitebait gone?

Whitebait season opened today and many whitebaiters may be asking themselves, “where have all the whitebait gone?” With predictions that it will be only an average season, it’s a very pertinent question.

Whitebaiting has long been a contentious issue, with feuds over the best positions on the river sometimes lasting through generations of whitebaiters.

These days, with whitebait numbers dwindling further and further, the arguments go beyond who has the best spot. Debate now includes the question of where they have all gone, who's to blame for the declining numbers and if we should still be allowing people to catch whitebait at all.

On one side, there are those who earn money from selling whitebait (up to $150/kg), sometimes helping to support their families in regions where employment is scarce; on the other there are those who view the targeted killing and selling of endangered native animals as, frankly, obscene.

In between these diametrically opposed groups, there are a range of views including those who feel that catching a feed of whitebait is a kiwi tradition, or even a right; there are those who aren't that concerned about whitebait conservation and there is still a huge group of people who don't actually know what whitebait are.

Freshwater ecologist, Amber McEwan, says that few people realise that four of the five whitebait species are more endangered than the little spotted kiwi.

“People are surprised to learn that these tiny, translucent fish are the migrating juveniles of inanga, koaro and three species of kokopu – beautiful native fish that can grow up to 50 cm long!”

Amber says that spreading this knowledge will play an important part in attempts to save these species. The mother of two small children, she has written three children’s books on New Zealand’s native freshwater fish, including a book about the fascinating lives of the whitebait species, and a picture book about the fictional lives of five whitebait friends finding their way to their ideal environments from the sea.

After her first child was born Amber realised that, while there were a number of children’s books about kiwi and tuatara and other New Zealand native animals, there was nothing about our beautiful native fishes. She set about putting that right, and has followed up her first two books on whitebait, with a book on New Zealand’s seven families of native freshwater fish: lamprey, eels, flounder, smelt, galaxiids (which include the whitebait species), bullies and torrentfish.

“Around 70% of all New Zealand native fishes are currently on the threatened species list,” says Amber. “If they are to avoid becoming extinct, they really need our help!”

The threats these fish face are mostly due to human activities: the taking of water for irrigation, pollution, habitat destruction, the introduction of invasive exotic fish, and sedimentation in our rivers, lakes and streams.

But there is much that individuals can do to help save them and Amber believes that it starts with education. The end goal of her books is to educate those who will be responsible for looking after our special freshwater fish in the future – our children.


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