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  • Rocky Roberts

Whitebaiters - an endangered species

Updated: Nov 30, 2023

Kōanga is a busy time, as it was for our tūpuna. For some it means thinking about preparing the māra/garden. But for me it is another mahinga kai, īnanga/whitebait, that becomes the focus and occasionally an obsession.

whitebait fritters

The season on the Coast runs from 1 September until 30 October. Ideally we get a flood in August and the river is clear and ready to go for the season. A couple of big rains can cut an already short season in half. So the shortening of the season by officials has a disproportionately negative effect on whitebaiters on the Kawatiri/Buller. Blanket regulations applied across the country are poorly thought out attempts to placate a well-meaning but largely ignorant anti-fishing brigade.

I like to get over early in the season just to show my face. I don’t expect to catch much during these early visits. They are mostly just to remind people that I’m still alive.

There are no registered stands on the Kawatiri/Buller and regulations state that it’s first in, best dressed. However this is the Coast and there are possies that you just don’t try to jump on. Some are whānau possies. Other possies are jealously guarded due to location and the regular catches they yield. Some possies are contested on a daily basis and an early alarm is necessary.

My brothers and I have fished on the river since we were kids. I know some of you are thinking, “cue the banjos”. The places near the river mouth that we prefer are technically up for grabs but by maintaining a regular presence, most locals are aware we are around and leave it alone.

A knowledge of the fishing regulations is handy but, even if correctly applied, will not always guarantee you a win should you end up in a riverside discussion. This is the Coast and there are unofficial rules and traditions that override regulations.

Several years ago, I had never seen a set net or sock net on the Kawatiri/Buller. It was never against the regulations but it was just one of those unwritten but widely accepted tikanga. Everyone has always used scoop nets. It requires skill to use a scoop net, contending with wind, current, and non-compliant, skitterish fish. Most of us think it’s a more honourable way to fish.

On the river everyone knows who’s who, and who fishes where, and generally the rules (written and unwritten) are understood and adhered to.

Our tūpuna undertook long, difficult seasonal journeys to gather kai and resources in the mountains, the tītī islands, or the tuna heke. They would trek into places like the Manahuna (Mackenzie Country) or the Whakatipu and Wānaka lakes area. Using mōkihi, they would raft what they had gathered downstream to their coastal villages. A successful trip in those days meant a better chance of survival. It was also an opportunity to renew old friendships, catch up on the gossip with the cuzzies. These days the biggest challenge I face on my māhinga kai expedition is at the petrol pump.

Those annual journeys were important to the old people and necessary in terms of survival. These days a good season can make a big difference in a small town. The extra cash that can be added to the local economy on the back of a decent season is important to an area that suffers most from the decline in traditional industries like forestry and mining and I have no problem with that. The season is a huge part of life on the Coast. When the fish are running, town is buzzing.

It seems a lot easier for governments to throw a few more regulations and restrictions at the fishermen themselves rather than tackle what many feel is the real problem: the degradation of breeding grounds by industry.

The knowledge learned from a lifetime of participation and observation of the fishery doesn’t seem to count for much compared to some ihu hupe with a degree in water something or other.

I admit there are always those who take the piss with no regard for the future of the fishery, but most fishermen are just after a feed for whānau and a few pound in the freezer for manuhiri. My catch is given to kaumātua and those that can’t fish themselves. Some I trade for tītī.

Nobody really knows how many whitebait get up the river. The issue isn’t whether enough are getting up past the nets, it is whether there is sufficient breeding habitat left. There appears to be no actual science behind the often heard statement that ‘four of the five species are endangered’ but it has been taken as gospel. If you say something often enough people will believe it.

Our tūpuna were stopped from practising their mahinga kai and their traditional way of life was denied them by government regulation egged on by colonial greed.

Any attempt to stop whitebaiting, motivated by political greed and the chase for votes, will be resisted by iwi and Pākehā alike.

I’ll be on the awa.

Aēmai, aēmai.

Cue banjos.

Nā Rocky Roberts

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