Tony Orman spoke with Steve Veail

Changes by the Department of Conservation to whitebait regulations are misguided and ill-conceived says a Waikanae whitebaiter, Steve Veail. 

The Department of Conservation (DOC) implemented a number of far-reaching changes for the 2022 season among them shortening the season to less than 2 months or 59 days by “fiddling” with the long standing regulations.

 But Steve Veail said the changes failed to address major threats such as uncontrolled commercial fishing. 

“The regulations are a guide for recreational fishing.  They were never intended to manage the commercial fishing of whitebait.  Recreational and commercial are two quite different activities,” he said. “Recreational fishing is about pursuing a love of the outdoors, personal satisfaction, and if lucky harvesting some food to share with friends and family.  Commercial whitebaiting is purely about profit.”

DOC’s viewpoint

But the department’s excuse was that including commercial fishing was outside their jurisdiction and was not being considered as part of a consultation that was held prior to the changes. 

“When I questioned about leaving commercial off the agenda, DOC’s explanation was that was the business of another department, MPI.  How very convenient,” said Steve Veail. 

Steve Veail said there was a need to consider the removal of all commercial fishing of whitebait.  

“There’s no reason why whitebait is not treated the same way as trout, which is illegal to sell. A serious issue here for DOC is most likely where fishing concessions have been issued by DOC, such as fees for stands, where they would have to consider the question of compensation for loss of profits from commercial whitebait fishing.” 

DOC informed him at the consultations that commercial export whitebait was not being reviewed. However he believes it’s likely that is where the significant portion of the annual catches goes. 

“I’d venture to say that the recreational catch is minuscule in comparison to the commercial catch,” he added.

The way DOC consults

The DOC consultation process seemed to be a “divide and conquer” exercise on all white-baiters thus splitting them into three different groups which are Maori, commercial and recreational. 

Further division was achieved, by holding a multitude of meetings in different areas.  

The “consultation” process also attracted the “anti-whitebaiters” who have a totally different concept of recreation for New Zealanders.  This approach by DOC makes it impossible to get a general consensus of what all New Zealand recreational whitebaiters thought.  

“It certainly very confusing to the participants in the consultation – who put in a lot of effort and time to attend and participate. Most left with the feeling that an agenda was already in process before the actual consultations,” he said. 

DOC’s consultation document

DOC produced a consultation document which was based on an assumption of declining whitebait numbers and which clearly indicated habitat loss was the major contributor and recreational fishing was hardly an issue.  

Referring to habitat loss, (i.e. loss of wetlands etc., where whitebait spawn,), Steve Veail said the decline in adult whitebait is not the result of recreational fishing, as very few whitebait are needed to be the adult breeding stock but was directly related to lost whitebait habitat and poor water quality management.

“So much drainage of land in New Zealand, to make way for farming and forestry, has resulted in the elimination of vast tracts of adult whitebait habitat, and degradation of water quality of the nation’s streams.” 

DOC’s poor management

Yet DOC never seem to participate in advocating for retaining water flows and quality of water with rivers, such as enhancing the integrity in Water Conservation Orders (WCOs) protecting rivers similar to the way National Parks protect wilderness lands. 

Steve had strong criticism for governments’ failed promises, pointing out the deteriorated state of rivers is a major issue which both Labour and the Greens have advocated on at election time but done virtually nothing. 

“However, both parties on this issue have been absent between elections with DOC completely absent.” 

“The Waikanae River is a classic example of a river that’s been left to time to just build up with gravel without any recent intervention.  Four metre boats used to sail up and berth at the Otaihanga boat club in the 1950s, now you can walk across at low tide not too far above your ankles.” [Our experience is that at mid-channel it’s still deeper than that. –Eds]