The New Zealand whitebait season | A real and delicious Kiwiana experience

Some thoughts on the New Zealand whitebait, sea gulls and the health of our rivers – their habitat…

Last week en-route to visiting family in South Canterbury I stopped off at a few east coast beaches, and in one instance walked to the mouth of the Waitaki River to look at what was present in regards photography, and found [as hoped] some white baiters:

Waitaki river mouth white baiter
The Waitaki River mouth. With the river very rapidly flowing left to right in the foreground, and the swells coming in in the background and breaking from the right it’s an exciting, if not risky place, to take a stance!

Then on my return home and getting into writing here I asked myself: “What are whitebait?”

whitebait nz
Usually translucent in the water and then tending to take on colour post being caught

Turns out it’s not a single species, but five species of the fish family Galaxiidae. All around 4–5 centimetres long and delicious to eat in more countries than just good ‘ole New Zealand.

In spring, often after a flood clears they swim upstream usually near the edges of rivers big and small, on a rising tide and during daylight hours

Waitaki river mouth white baiters

So what’s environmental photography got to do with little fish?

I’ve known for some time that what I thought of in my magical childhood as the common seagull being more a pest than anything [at age 5 poos from one landed on my ice cream!], I now realise the black billed gull is in the sad state of being the most threatened gull species in the world!

Black bill gull NZ

So too are white bait declining in numbers!

Is there a link?

Probably! Gulls feed in rivers [see below], and even more so since open “rubbish dumps” have turned into sanitised “transfer stations” thus denying gulls scavenging rights, and easy food during breeding times.

All over New Zealand the water quality of rivers has declined due to run-off from intensifying agriculture, and other reasons less obvious. And as it does so, “runs” of whitebait decline, no doubt due to spawning grounds being compromised.

The largest whitebait runs still occur in South Westland though. And guess what? There is very little or no intensive farming going on upstream – no coincidences here!

Cook River South Westland
Near the headwaters of the Cook River in South Westland – no room here for agriculture
 house at Ross South Westland
It can be wild and rough living in Ross, South Westland!

But lets get back to the Waitaki River on the east coast and ponder the health of the river bed between the river mouth as above and the Waitaki Dam upstream near Kurow – a distance of about 60 Km.

The Waitaki hydro scheme is a series of interconnected lakes and canals used to generate electricity. It’s made up of eight hydro stations on the Waitaki River the oldest and one closest to the sea being the Waitaki Dam.

A promise was made before the flow of the river was managed by Meridian Energy that river flows would be maintained in such a way as to ensure the river bed stayed in it’s natural state pre dam building. This has sadly never been honoured by any of the managing bodies.

Waitaki poppy
Although very pretty these Californian poppies would not get a foot-hold if the occasional flood were allowed to “clean up’ the river bed here just a few kms downstream from the Waitaki Dam. Note too the various grasses. Unfortunately also all stones under the water have what is commonly known as didymo or rock snot covering them. None of these interlopers are going to help our rare braided river bed birds breed.
Paua shells at the river mouth of the Waitaki River
Paua shells at the river mouth of the Waitaki River

New Zealand’s three native species of päua are distinctive because of their amazing multi-coloured shells. Päua are very important for Mäori. I’m not sure why there were so many piles of them as above scattered all over the stones.

Waitaki river mouth surf
I would not have thought the high energy nature of the beaches by the mouth of the Waitaki River would be a good habitat for paua, so maybe this could be addressed in a future blog post.

Lastly writing this has made me aware that there are many laws to be honoured by fisher people in regard to paua and other delectable water and river based life forms that can be caught, cooked and eaten.

If the laws are broken and the perpetrator is caught they’ll be up for a heavy fine and even jail, yet big businesses such as the dam owners are not held accountable for operating procedures that do worse by destroying the habitat!

Run the above images as a galley slide-show, click any thumbnail below: