New Zealand's only whitebait farm looks to protect species under strain

Whitebait season began in Marlborough on August 15, and closes on November 30.
ZANE MIRFIN/STUFF

Whitebait season began in Marlborough on August 15, and closes on November 30.

As the appetite for whitebait shows no sign of slowing, the nation's only whitebait farm believes it could provide protection to a species under strain.

New Zealand Premium Whitebait hopes to ease pressure on the wild population by producing 5000 kilograms of the juvenile fish this year.

While the banks of Marlborough waterways fill up with whitebaiters, regional fishers believe farming the delicacy could be a "saviour" for wild stock in decline.

​New Zealand Premium Whitebait chief executive Jeremy Gardiner said the company aimed to supply the juvenile fish year-round.

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Customers were still keen on the fish but wanted to ensure survival of the species, Gardiner said.

The New Zealand Premium Whitebait farm, north of Auckland, expects to produce 5000 kilograms of the delicacy this year.
SUPPLIED

The New Zealand Premium Whitebait farm, north of Auckland, expects to produce 5000 kilograms of the delicacy this year.

"People are worried about the sustainability but want to enjoy whitebait fritters, it seems like farming is the way to go," he said.

The five main species of whitebait included inanga, koaro, banded kokopu, giant kokopu, and shortjaw kokopu.

Based on the population of adults, whitebait was in decline. According to the Department of Conservation website, the shortjaw kokopu was "threatened" while three species - inanga, koaro and giant kokopu - were in "decline".

The farm, north of Auckland, was the nation's only commercial whitebait operation and had 50,000 fish for breeding.

Farming whitebait meant the company was not constrained by season or regulations, Gardiner said.

Some freshwater scientists predicted certain species of whitebait could be extinct within 20 years based on current figures, Gardiner said.

New Zealand Premium Whitebait is the country's only whitebait farm and has 50,000 fish for breeding.
SUPPLIED

New Zealand Premium Whitebait is the country's only whitebait farm and has 50,000 fish for breeding.

He expected tighter controls on commercial whitebait catches would be enforced in the coming years.

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"Imagine if we waited this long to do something about the kiwi? I do think there will be changes," he said.

Marlborough recreational fisherman and author Tony Orman largely opposed fish farming, but said whitebait farming could take pressure away from the wild population.

Whitebaiters park their camper vans on the banks of the Wairau Diversion in Marlborough.
SCOTT HAMMOND/STUFF

Whitebaiters park their camper vans on the banks of the Wairau Diversion in Marlborough.

"On the face of it, it sounds to be a good idea and could be the saviour of wild whitebait stock," he said.

Orman believed commercial fishing of whitebait should be banned with fishers encouraged to only take for their family table.

The majority of Stuff readers appeared to agree with Orman in a poll about whitebait regulations this month.

Banning the commercial catch of whitebait was the most popular answer from 6500 readers, scoring 36 per cent of the vote.

The second most popular answer called for a catch limit to be introduced, while the third highest answer, to allow whitebaiting every other year, scored 21 per cent of the vote.

Thirteen per cent of voters wanted whitebaiting banned, while 7 per cent thought no changes were necessary.

The concept of whitebait farming could provide the product to customers but lessen the take from rivers, Orman said.

Gardiner said much of the farm's produce was sold domestically, but international sales to Singapore, Hong Kong and Australia were increasing.

Temperature controlled tanks helped the farm regulate the reproductive cycles of the fish and produce consistent supply and quality.

The farmed fish produced whitebait from August to January. Within three years, the company expected a 12-month cycle of whitebait production.

Whitebait season began in Marlborough on August 15, and would close on November 30.

Illegal whitebaiting carried a maximum fine of $5000 and fishing equipment could be seized.

 - The Marlborough Express

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