As the whitebait season looms, a freshwater scientist is calling for tighter fishing restrictions to protect threatened species.
Massey University's Dr Mike Joy said four of the five species of whitebait were as threatened as wood pigeons.
"No-one would eat a wood pigeon fritter but whitebait have the same threat ranking," he said.
The whitebait season opens throughout the country - except on the West Coast - on August 15 and runs to November 30, with fishing restricted to 5am to 8pm, or 6am to 9pm during daylight saving. The Conservation Department (DOC) manages whitebaiting.
Dr Joy said regulations governing the fishery needed updating.
"Whitebait regulations have not changed for decades despite a lot of new information. There is no fishing overnight to let juveniles get up rivers and streams, but now it turns out they do not make their way up at night. DOC has to stop the commercial sale of whitebait in restaurants and look at reducing the season to protect the fishery.
"They are declining and we are going to lose them."
He believed regulations similar to those for trout should be introduced.
"Trout have total protection - you need a licence to fish them and you are not allowed to sell them.
"Individuals should be allowed to go and catch a feed of whitebait for themselves or a friend but you should not be able to buy them in a restaurant, shop or supermarket."
Freshwater studies showed if waterways continued to be destroyed at the present rate, there would be no native fish left by 2050, he said.
"That is the warning. We are destroying our rivers. The first sign is all our fish are starting to disappear. People get angry about killing endangered whales but do not take the same stance with whitebait in the backyard."
DOC spokesman Reuben Williams said whitebait fisheries managed by the department in both the North and South Island were only recreational, though whitebait was sold in restaurants.
"They are not commercially fished," he said.
"Freshwater scientists, Niwa and DOC monitor catch rates which fluctuate from season to season. You have to look at it long-term. Our role is to manage the fishery at the same time as managing waterways and working with the public to try and improve water quality, especially on conservation land which we administer."
The whitebait season on the West Coast, where bumper catches are frequently reported, runs from September 1 to November 14.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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