The word whitebait does not refer to a single species. It is a general term used in many countries to describe small freshwater fish that are tender and edible. In New Zealand it describes the juvenile forms (around 4–5 centimetres long) of five species of the fish family Galaxiidae.
In spring, whitebait make their way upstream from the sea, swimming near the river’s edge. Large shoals are referred to as runs. Big runs often follow floods, a few days after the water clears – usually in the daytime on a rising tide.
Whitebait can be caught from many New Zealand rivers. Whitebaiters set nets and sit on the river bank, hoping to harvest this popular delicacy.
Whitebait are the juveniles of five species:
As adults the five species differ in size, markings and habitat.
Īnanga and giant kōkopu prefer lowland marshes and sluggish waters. Kōaro, banded kōkopu and shortjaw kōkopu are found in forest streams at higher altitudes.
Īnanga adults are barely twice the size of juveniles. The other species grow much larger – the giant kōkopu can reach half a metre.
In many rivers īnanga, kōaro and banded kōkopu make up most of the whitebait catch, with īnanga being the most common species.
Of the five whitebait species, only the spawning habits of īnanga are fully understood.
Īnanga normally live for one year.
Whitebait runs are generally smaller than they used to be, as many of their spawning grounds have been destroyed.
In most of the country the quality of river water has declined because of run-off from agriculture and other land use. The exception is South Westland, and it is probably no coincidence that this is where the best-known and largest whitebait runs still occur. There is no evidence that the runs there have declined.
It was once believed that whitebait went out to sea to spawn. But in 1904, one observer reported from the Rangitīkei River mouth in the Manawatū:
‘During the months of March and April may be seen at high water spring tides countless myriads of small fish from four to six inches in length, making the water literally boil, wherever any rushes or brushwood exist by the river or creek margin. The water, much vexed, has a slightly milky appearance wherever the fish are most numerous. It is spawning time’. 1
Other fish are also caught in whitebaiters’ nets, and these are not always welcome. Most common is the smelt (Retropinna retropinna), which in the Waikato can make up a significant portion of the catch. It is sometimes referred to as ‘second-class whitebait’.
On the east coast of the South Island, Stokell’s smelt (Stokellia anisodon) are taken by whitebaiters. Juvenile bullies, known as ‘whalefeed’ or ‘Dan Doolin spawn’ also find their way into nets on the West Coast. Glass eels, the juveniles of longfin and shortfin eels, also get caught as they migrate upriver in spring.
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.
Whitebait are caught in fine-meshed nets that are hand held or set along river banks. Hand-held nets have round hoop frames and long handles. Known as scoop nets, they are used along the river’s edge. Right in the breakers at river mouths, small, short-handled ‘pot’ nets are used.
In the 1930s West Coasters improvised whitebait nets with supplejack vine for the hoop and a net of cotton mosquito netting. The frames of modern hand-held nets are made of lightweight aluminium, and the netting is nylon mesh. The catch was typically stored in kerosene tins, but these were superseded by plastic buckets.
Before refrigeration, commercial whitebaiters also kept their catch in ‘live boxes’ – wooden crates covered in mesh netting and placed in the river. Live whitebait could be kept captive in this way for a few days.
Fixed nets (or set nets) are placed facing downstream to catch whitebait as they swim upstream. Early models had frames of supplejack covered in cotton mesh. These were placed in gaps in river groynes that were built at right angles to a river bank. (Building trenches or groynes or otherwise altering the river bed is now illegal.)
Fixed nets vary in their design. The most common have metal frames with fine metal mesh. Triangular or box-shaped, they are often fitted to a stand – a rough jetty at a right angle to the bank. Long tapering nets are also fixed to stands, and dubbed ‘Southland socks’.
Screens (which cannot exceed 3 metres in length) are staked in the river, at right angles to the bank. They help guide the fish out from the river edge and into the net.
Although it is illegal, some whitebaiters use a ‘waggle stick’ – a 2–3-metre stick with a white flag on the end. This is said to encourage the fish to swim into the net.
Often a spotter board (a white plank) is placed on the riverbed at the mouth of the net. This allows the whitebaiter to see the fish as they swim over it. The whitebaiter then empties the net before the whitebait swim out again. For the same purpose, previous generations used to chop down cabbage trees, peel their bark to reveal the light-coloured wood, and lay them in the water.
In South Westland, catching whitebait was usually no problem, but getting it to market could be difficult. Whitebait did not keep well. With no natural ports, boats had to cross river bars, and they could not always get in. Much whitebait spoilt before it could be sold.
In 1950 Henry Buchanan had his first season fishing the Ōkuru River. Din Nolan, owner of the canning factory that bought whitebait, let him net the river. Buchanan grossed £600 (in 2006 this equated to $35,000), and recalls:
‘Old Nolan – he was ruling like a Czar, and he’d tell you where you could fish and where you could go. … He had a boy on every river – he had five boys, and if he had a boy on the river you weren’t allowed to fish there, otherwise he wouldn’t take your fish.’ 1
Before refrigeration, canning was the only way to keep the fish. Canning was first established on the Waikato River in 1887, and that same year whitebait were being canned on the West Coast at Paringa. By 1930 the firm of Irvine and Stevenson had canneries at Karamea, Westport, Greymouth, Hokitika and Dunedin.
In 1928 Din Nolan set up a canning factory at Ōkuru. At that time, South Westland was very remote and members of the Nolan family often had an entire river to fish for themselves. As their cannery was the only outfit buying whitebait, they could command the price. The Ōkuru cannery was probably the country’s largest, due to the prolific catches. In 1944, 54.4 tonnes were canned and the catch was carted to the cannery by the dray load. The factory ran until 1952.
As early as 1936, planes were flying whitebait out from South Westland. Airstrips were hacked out of the bush, or the planes landed on the beach. After the Second World War, large quantities were flown out in light aircraft by returned air force pilots such as Fred ‘Popeye’ Lucas. Around 1946 Des Nolan, son of the cannery owner Din Nolan, got his pilot’s licence and flew out whitebait for seven or eight years.
However, the harvest did not always get picked up, as poor visibility sometimes prevented the pilots from landing. There were numerous crashes and near misses.
The arrival of refrigerators meant that whitebait could be cool-stored rather than canned, leading to the demise of the South Westland canneries by the 1950s.
When the Haast Pass road was opened in 1960, flying became less important – except for those isolated rivers to the south, such as the Cascade.
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
Bradshaw, Julia. The far downers. Dunedin: University of Otago Press, 2001.
McDowall, Robert M. The New Zealand whitebait book. Wellington: Reed, 1984.
McDowall, Robert M. The Reed guide to New Zealand freshwater fishes. Auckland: Reed, 2000.
Peat, Neville. Cascade on the run. Christchurch: Whitcoulls, 1979.