Catching and eating whitebait is part of life on the West Coast and at rivers around the country. During the season in November the delicacy is available from supermarkets and fish shops. As early as the 1920s whitebait was expensive enough to be considered a luxury. ‘When we get married/ We’ll have whitebait for tea’ were the lines of a popular song at the time. In 2019 a kilogram sold for up to $150.
Many ‘baiters’, as they are called, have caravans or baches (shacks) and take up residence on river banks for the season. The baches and their piers, known as stands, were selling for high prices on the tail of the property boom of the 2000s. In 2006 one stand on the Waiatoto River sold for $46,000.
Some whitebaiters sell their catch to buyers who supply fish shops during the season. But as whitebait runs diminish, many people keep their catch and give any excess to family and friends.
Whitebait fritters or patties are the most common recipe. You mix together a few eggs, two tablespoons of flour, a teaspoon of baking powder and salt, and as much whitebait as you have. Spoonfuls are then fried in butter or oil. The fritters are often eaten between slices of buttered white bread.
Whitebait are one of a handful of native species that can be legally harvested and sold. In 2006 there were no limits on the amount of whitebait anyone could take as long as they were fishing legally. The fishery is controlled by the Department of Conservation. Regulations vary, with hand-held nets allowed in some areas and fixed nets in others. Whitebaiters should check local rules first.
A person can only use one whitebait net, and must be within 10 metres of it at all times. Fishing gear must not extend over more than a third of the width of the stream. Rules also govern the length of the season, placement of screens, net and screen size, and many other factors. Because they are structures in the river beds, whitebait stands require a licence under the Resource Management Act 1991.
These regulations ensure that some whitebait pass the nets and establish themselves upriver as adults. They can then return to estuaries to spawn the next generation.
In 2019 the whitebait season for all areas of mainland New Zealand except the West Coast extended from 15 August to 30 November. Fishing is permitted from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. during New Zealand standard time, and from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. during daylight saving time.
There are different seasons on the West Coast (1 September–14 November) and the Chatham Islands (1 December–last day of February). Anyone breaching the regulations can be fined up to $5,000.
The days of catching cartloads may be gone, but each spring, translucent shoals can still be seen in many rivers, doggedly swimming upstream. Word soon gets out that the whitebait are running.
Acknowledgements to Robert M. McDowall