Catching and eating whitebait is part of life on the West Coast and at river mouths around the country. During the season 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, sold for high prices during the property boom of the 2000s. In 2006 one stand on the Waiatoto River in South Westland sold for $46,000.
Some whitebaiters sell their catch to buyers who supply fish shops during the season. But as whitebait runs diminished, many people kept their catch and gave 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. The fishery is managed by the Department of Conservation under the Whitebait Fishing Regulations (2021). 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.
Under these regulations, there are no limits on the amount of whitebait anyone could take as long as they fish legally in the tidal zone of the river. The maximum penalty for illegal whitebaiting is a fine of $5,000. Fishers can use a variety of nets, including hand-held nets and fixed nets. 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 quarter of the width of the stream, and cannot be placed within 20m of certain parts of a river, such as tide gates or where rivers meet (confluences), or from bridges. Rules also govern the length of the season, the placement and size of nets and screens, and many other factors.
Local rules apply on many rivers, and there are a number of whitebait refuges where fishing is not allowed.
The regulations do not apply to customary fishing rights exercised by tangata whenua.
In 2022 the whitebait season for all areas of mainland New Zealand extended from 1 September to 30 October. Fishing was 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.
The season on the Chatham Islands runs from 1 December to the last day of February.
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