Auckland Zoo believes that the fishing of whitebait fish should stop. This is why we've joined over 7,000 (and counting) of our fellow experts and conservationists by writing a submission to the Government and the Department of Conservation ahead of their proposed changes to whitebait management. 

We're also asking members of the public to make their own submissions before Monday 2nd March, which you can do easily through the Forest & Bird website or via email

It is extraordinary and inexcusable that the endemic freshwater fish of Aotearoa remain almost entirely unprotected, not being included as such on the Wildlife Act 1953, and are therefore treated as a resource to be plundered rather than an endangered and precious taonga to be protected and cherished like other endemic species. Freshwater fish should enjoy the same protection and conservation attention we provide other threatened species.

While there may be an argument for continuing to allow limited and strictly-controlled whitebait fishing on cultural grounds, it must be acknowledged that the large-scale consumption of these fish, both domestically and for export, is neither necessary nor sustainable and therefore cannot be justified. If harvesting were the only threat these fish faced a strictly managed fishery might be feasible, but their wetland homes are the most threatened, damaged, reduced and polluted of all Aotearoa’s environments. Nowhere is ‘NZPure’ further from the truth and nowhere are we doing so little to conserve our threatened species.

Until whitebait fishing can be completely prohibited, we support many of the Government and Department of Conservation's (DOC) proposed changes to whitebait management in the short-term. However we propose that there must also be enforced licensing, strict and conservative catch limits, and a comprehensive data collection programme. These are the basic tenets of managing any fishery and are essential for as long as the Government continues to allow the exploitation of threatened endemic species in this manner.

The options outlined in the consultation document advocate more for those involved in this ill-advised fishing industry than they do for the fish. Furthermore, we do not consider them acceptable for a Government Department charged with the conservation and recovery of biodiversity and our ecosystems. The goal of any changes must be clearly focused on the recovery of the fish rather than the survival of an unstainable fishery serving just a small proportion of the population with an occasional recreational activity and an unnecessary/luxury food item.

We believe the long-term objectives for all six native whitebait fish species (and endemic freshwater fish in general), should include:

  • Have abundant and healthy habitat available to them.
  • Have safe passage for migration and are no longer subject to uncontrolled and unstainable harvest.
  • Are abundant and thriving in all locations they are expected to be and have historically been found. 
  • Can be re-assessed as not-threatened.
  • Are listed on and protected by the Wildlife Act 1953.

Until these objectives are met, whitebait fish cannot be considered ‘recovered’ and their exploitation should be strictly limited until such time it can be prohibited altogether.

We appreciate that changing the law to protect freshwater fish effectively and prohibit their exploitation, requires considerable consultation and time.

In the short-term we therefore support reducing harvest substantially by:

  • Reducing the season to 15 August – 14 October. This is the best option available to protect peak migration of the different species.
  • Introducing close control and monitoring through an enforced catch-limit and licensing programme.
  • Quickly phasing out export of whitebait and whitebait products.
  • Restricting fishing gear to eliminate the risk of by-catch. However, because our fish are vulnerable to extinction, we must also limit the amount of fish being taken.
  • Establishing multiple and substantial permanent no-take zones within each estuary/river system. Selection of refuge locations should be informed by good science.
  • Introducing a back-peg system to mark upstream locations beyond which fishing is banned, taking into account tidal factors.

For and on behalf of Auckland Zoo.

Richard Gibson, Head of Life Sciences and Dr Sarah Thomas, Head of Conservation Advocacy and Engagement.