environment

Fury and confusion over claimed whitebait ‘ban’

What were touted as minor changes to the Conservation Act regarding native fish have generated another uproar - is it all a misunderstanding?

It was called the anti-trout bill by some but just days after trout fishers appeared placated, a new debate has ignited over whitebait.

National MP Sarah Dowie is claiming the Conservation (Indigenous Freshwater Fish) Bill will ban whitebaiting.

She’s said the National Party will oppose the second reading and has started a petition titled 'Stop the Government’s Whitebaiting Ban'.

“The bill’s transitional clauses mean that after a year, whitebaiting will be prohibited unless there is specific authorisation to do otherwise.”

Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage calls Dowie’s actions over-dramatising and misleading:

“It’s implying there’s going to be a blanket ban and there’s not.”

Dowie describes Sage as being “very tricky” on the matter.

Who’s right?

The bill, put forward by Sage, was intended to improve protection of native fish. Twenty-one of 56 indigenous freshwater species are threatened with extinction.

Of the five species that make up the whitebait fishery, four are threatened.

Both Dowie and Sage are right in their whitebait claims. The possibility of a ban exists, but there is no ban.

What Dowie failed to mention in the petition is the higher likelihood of a ban for whitebaiting in conservation areas.

Conservation land makes up around a third of New Zealand’s land mass. It’s legally protected land with a primary purpose of conserving biodiversity.

Currently, despite four whitebait species being classed as at-risk, or threatened with extinction, it’s legal to catch them on conservation land.

If passed, the bill will give whitebaiters one more year of fishing on conservation land. After that year is up, they may only fish on conservation land with authorisation.

Sage said any changes to access can only happen after public consultation.

“It could be rivers, or certain reaches of rivers are closed to whitebaiting in order for a whitebait to be able to get upstream without meeting a net and becoming a whitebait patty.”

What about rivers that aren’t on conservation land? Dowie said the bill also threw doubt on whether the current situation would continue.

“That says that a person can take freshwater fish, however, it must be done either with an authorisation, or in accordance with regulations.

“Those powers allow the minister to outlaw whitebaiting.”

Sage said the detail of how whitebait will be managed will be the subject of thorough public consultation. The bill provides the tools to close some areas but doesn’t actually close them.

“That would only be done through changes to the freshwater fish regulations and any changes to regulations require public consultation. So, there's just no prospect of me doing anything without public consultation.”

Confusing things further is a whitebait consultation process currently under way. 

The Department of Conservation is planning on publishing a consultation document this year which will include proposed changes to white baiting, for which a working group of interested parties from conservation groups, iwi, and fishers was assembled.

Public input was also sought. DoC’s report estimates almost 3000 people in total took completed a survey, with around 2500 providing written comments

The survey found 90 percent of the public supports changes to whitebaiting regulations.

One survey respondent asked: “How can a native fish be caught and sold. When trout are not native and cannot. That is so a** about face.”

Another suggested the current management structure is faulty:

“The system to manage whitebait is set up for disaster. It is managed as a recreational fish and yet able to be sold commercially”.

Stuff reported only NZ First MP Shane Jones ate the whitebait fritters supplied by National's Maureen Pugh. Photo: Facebook

A touch of antagonism and a bit of misunderstanding

For a minor, technical bill there’s been a fair amount of antagonism. Whitebait fritters have been brought to hearings, legal heavyweight QC Sir Geoffrey Palmer has given his opinion for Fish & Game, and a flurry of public submissions were whipped up. 

Part of this could be put down to a lack of prior consultation and subsequent misunderstanding.

DoC has acknowledged Fish & Game were not consulted prior to the bill's introduction due to time constraints and because it was about indigenous fish, not sports fish. It has published a FAQ page to clarify concerns.

Fish & Game came out swinging against three clauses in the bill it felt affected its members. There was concern one clause gave DoC plans precedence over Fish & Game plans if the plans conflicted. DoC’s FAQ page dryly notes: “It does not give DOC’s freshwater fisheries management plans priority as they already have priority.”

The clause has since been deleted, along with another clause about consultation over the introduction and release of fish. The third clause, regarding Treaty settlements has remained. However, in a positive press release Fish & Game last week said it was confident the clause won't impact on sport fishery. 

Sage is disappointed at this week's turn of events.

"I'm disappointed the National Party doesn't have the best interests of our native fish at heart and is trying to stir up a storm about whitebaiting because they know a lot of people enjoy whitebaiting. I want to ensure we have a sustainable fishery."

Dowie said the National Party is not opposed to conservation, "but there are plenty of other pragmatic measures, habitat restoration, voluntary measures, best fishing practices".

Read more: Fishing faithful gear up for trout fight

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