Whitebait season to knock your socks off
Whitebaiters are having a bumper season in Golden Bay, but tension over the use of "sock nets" is taking the shine off for some.
Until a few years ago whitebaiting in the Nelson region was done with scoop nets or set nets that are regularly lifted and emptied.
But over the past several years sock nets - longer and with a built-in trap that means they are set only once a tide - have become popular.
They're creating an unfair advantage that makes it tough for the old-style fishermen, says long-time Golden Bay whitebaiter Hika Rountree.
So while catches had been "phenomenal" this season so far, reportedly reaching 100lb (45kg) and more on a single tide in the Takaka River, it was the sock netters who were doing the best.
"I've whitebaited all my life and 20-30lbs (9-14kg) have been the biggest catches recorded on the Takaka River with the old-style nets," Rountree said.
"Every year more get bought and now we have 35 sock netters down here."
He said many of the sock nets were "great big things that border on being legal" and on the smaller tides they were being set up at the rivermouth and stopping the whitebait getting upstream to where many other whitebaiters waited.
Many of the sock-netters were whitebaiting professionally and some were beneficiaries who could sell their catch to Auckland at $45 a pound ($100 a kilogram), providing a $4500 tax-free return for a 100lb catch, "so both the IRD and the Social Welfare Department need to be involved".
He said Golden Bay whitebaiters, who had begun a Facebook page called Greedy Baiter to publicise their concerns, had lobbied the Conservation Department and the conservation minister's office, but had got no joy.
"All the old people and people down to get a feed are missing out and they are up in arms about it. People over here are absolutely gutted that someone can go down and catch 100lb in one day and then go back the next day and get more."
It would be better if the Primary Industries Ministry took over management of the whitebait fishery and policed it more stringently, ountree said.
Conservation Department Golden Bay area manager John Mason confirmed it was a very productive season, with consistent catches in the Takaka and Aorere rivers over the past three to four weeks.
He was aware of unhappiness about the use of sock nets.
"They probably are more efficient catchers of whitebait than conventional nets, but there's no law against using a sock net.
"I think there's certainly a reasonable amount of concern out there, particularly from what you'd term recreational whitebaiters. The people who are doing it commercially are all using sock nets."
He said the major factors affecting whitebait were their survival rate at sea, where the transparent juvenile fish had to survive predation by kahawai and other fish, good stream care to provide the right habitat, and unseasonal floods.
Netting itself was not seen as a having a big effect on the whitebait population, and the fact that a record season was in full swing made it hard to argue that sock nets, which have been in use for years, had made a major impact.
Mason said the breaches of the regulations this season were mainly around people not staying close to their nets, and using over-length screens to steer the tiny fish towards the nets.
"I understand there was an assault on the river this year, we had a report of a couple of whitebaiters coming to blows over occupying a particular spot. But I haven't heard of any confrontations over sock nets - just a general level of unhappiness that they're being used."
There are numerous regulations around whitebaiting covering net size and length, screen length, hours of fishing, proximity to culverts and confluences and other matters. Breaches can attract hefty fines.
There is no daily catch limit and whitebaiters are free to sell their catch. Last week roadside vendors in Golden Bay were asking $35 a pound ($77kg) compared with $120kg at Guyton Fisheries on Wakefield Quay.
The season, which has also produced good whitebait runs in Motueka and Nelson rivers, runs until the end of next month.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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