Time to make whitebait rules more transparent

One of the appealing things about whitebait is that until cooked, they're not white at all, but see-through. What about the regulations surrounding their capture? Does their clarity match that of the delicious little fish? Do they meet the most important requirement, ensuring that the fish will survive in healthy numbers and future generations will also be able to enjoy that quintessential Kiwi experience, whitebait patties?

There are no clear answers to be had but one thing stands out: the management of whitebait is anomalous with that of all other commercial and recreational fish. Whitebait - actually the young of five different native fish species - are in a category of their own. Unlike trout and wild salmon, the other two types of fish caught recreationally, they can be taken without a licence, and they can be sold. That surely makes them a commercial fish. But unlike snapper, blue cod, gurnard and all the other ocean fish caught both commercially and recreationally, there is no daily catch limit for amateurs, or tradeable quota for professionals. There is no total allowable catch to cover all sectors, or total allowable commercial catch to stop the professional whitebaiters from cleaning out the stock. The controls are instead based on hours of fishing, size of nets, proximity to culverts and confluences and a range of other requirements, all policed by the Department of Conservation.

Given this weird set of arrangements, and the almost ridiculously high value placed on the catch - $120 a kilogram in one Nelson retail outlet this year - it's perhaps a surprise that there isn't more conflict on the riverbanks when the annual season gets going. On the West Coast, where catches have traditionally been high with correspondingly more income at stake, prime riverside spots are proudly held and fiercely defended. In our region, however, it has always been first come, first served, and reports of anything more than grumpy exchanges between clashing whitebaiters are few.

However, as a Nelson Mail story earlier in the week showed, the growing use of long "sock nets" set once a day to trap and hold every tiny fish that swims in, is causing friction, particularly in usually laid-back Golden Bay, which has been experiencing the sort of plentiful runs that whitebaiters can usually only dream of.

Sock nets are legal - barely so, a critic attests - but more efficient, and favoured by those after money rather than relaxation. There are calls to ban these nets to give the traditionalists, who use set nets that must be frequently lifted and emptied, or scoop nets, the same chance they used to have before the newer method came onto the scene several years ago.

In some respects it seems a fair call. But the controversy also creates the opportunity for a more thorough look at the whitebaiting regulations and how they are administered. Other New Zealand fish are subject to a daily bag for amateurs and quotas for the commercial sector. There are more management tools but this is the one used to greatest effect.

Clearly whitebaiters can't be asked measure each fish, but why shouldn't they have to weigh their catch. If sock nets are favoured by people catching whitebait to sell, should they be licensed and restricted to a daily limit? Should the sale of whitebait be forbidden altogether? It seems to work for trout, the basis of considerable tourism. Perhaps it's time to move the debate from the riverbanks into a setting that might produce answers, not arguments.

The Nelson Mail