In spring, Māori caught whitebait moving upstream, using nets and groynes formed in the gravel of river banks. They also caught adult īnanga in nets as the fish moved downstream to spawn, and adult giant kōkopu in scoop nets and traps.
Īnanga were taken from Te Waihora (Lake Ellesmere) in nets made from stripped flax. One end of the net was dragged by fishermen on shore, the other by those in a canoe. Whitebait were also netted by hand using a single mānuka pole, or by two people each holding a pole to which the net was attached.
To preserve the catch, it was dried on racks above a fire, or on mats in the sun. One way to cook whitebait was to steam them in a hāngī (earth oven) in flax baskets lined with fern fronds.
Māori fishermen also sold their catch. In her book Station life in New Zealand (1870) Lady Mary Anne Barker described how she ‘had a good luncheon of whitebait, and rested and fed the horses. From the window of the hotel I saw a few groups of Maories; [they had] a rude sort of basket made of flax fibres, or buckets filled with whitebait, which they wanted us to buy’. 1
The Waikato River was one of the main sources, and in the 1930s over 95% of the whitebaiters on the river were Māori. They paid a voluntary levy of one penny per pound of whitebait sold, to cover the expenses of the Māori King movement. This was referred to as moni ika (whitebait tax). The practice lapsed for a time, but was reinstated by Te Puea Hērangi (1883–1952).
The journals of early immigrants referred to shoals of whitebait swimming upstream, darkening the water. There were reports of cartloads being caught and supply exceeding demand, with excess whitebait used as garden manure, or fed to poultry until their eggs had a fishy taste. Such accounts indicate the quantities once caught. The wastage was probably due in part to the difficulty of storing the delicate fish.
Europeans adapted Māori methods, but made their nets from cotton mesh instead of flax. Whitebait fed gold miners in the West Coast rushes. In the 1870s and 1880s enterprising Chinese miners dried whitebait and sent it to Otago and to China.
There were concerns about declining catches as early as the 1890s. In 1927 South Westland was referred to as the last stronghold of the whitebait.
It is difficult to prove a decline in catches as the Marine Department only began systematically recording the catch around 1930, and even then it is not certain whether this indicated the true catch.
A natural variability confuses the issue. The size of runs fluctuates widely anyway, and there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ seasons. Nostalgia can creep in, and it may not be true that catches were always bigger in the past. For example, the records show that on the West Coast the 1911, 1912 and 1915 seasons were ‘poor’, while 1909 was ‘very poor’. 2 Still, it is generally accepted that in most of New Zealand the size of whitebait runs has declined.
The Department of Conservation manages the whitebait fishery. It identifies the spawning habitat and encourages landowners to fence off these areas from stock. Other measures include river-bank planting, and ensuring that any work carried out in river beds does not disturb this habitat. Fishing is banned in some streams known to be the habitat for adults of the five species of whitebait.