The history of a little fish – whitebait decline in New Zealand

The front-page article in yesterday’s Kapiti Observer, showing a photo of a local man peering glumly into the his near-empty whitebait net at the mouth of the Waikanae River, prompted me to think about whitebait decline and its historical causes.

But first of all, what are whitebait? Many New Zealanders (including myself, until embarrassingly recently) may vaguely assume that it is a type of small fish – but in fact it is the juvenile form of five species of the fish family Galaxiidae (the most common being inanga). The larvae of these galaxiids are swept down to the ocean where they hatch and the sprats (or whitebait) then migrate back up their home rivers. They seek habitats upriver where there is still plentiful indigenous forest cover, where the fish then mature.

The term “whitebait” was a term used in Britain, and was brought with the early settlers to describe the little fish they found in such abundance here. The journals of early immigrants referred to shoals of whitebait swimming upstream, darkening the water. There were reports of cartloads being caught, with excess whitebait used as garden manure, or poultry feed.

However, this abundance was short-lived. Concerns about declining catches began as early as the 1890s – though sometimes natural seasonal variability was confused with dramatic declines. In 1927 South Westland was referred to as the last stronghold of the whitebait.

For example, a 1933 article in the Evening Post reports on a season so poor that a restricted season was declared:

The whitebait season this year on the Waikato River has been the poorest for many years … The cause of the scarcity of the fish is not apparent. This year a restricted season for the taking of whitebait has been prescribed, with a view to letting more of the fish up the river to develop and return to spawn…

Though unsure of the cause, the journalist correctly identifies the returning of the fish upriver to spawn as a key factor. Almost 80 years later, this is a factor central to a new discovery and possible solution for declining whitebait numbers made by Waikato scientists. Over the last century or more, we have created so many impediments in our waterways – most notably, culverts and dams – that in many rivers and streams, fish are no longer able to make this journey. This, combined with pollution, sedimentation, and the severe reduction of indigenous forest cover around our rivers, is a major factor in the decline of these and many other indigenous freshwater fish species.

But could one solution to the problem be rope-climbing fish? [see photo right]

Watch the video of this fascinating story by clicking here.

Photo top: The inanga, or Galaxias maculatus, the most common species of whitebait, by Ryan PhotographicCentre: Henry Gurr and his son whitebaiting on the Taieri River, 1926. Photograph taken by Albert Percy Godber. Not to be reproduced without the permission of Alexander Turnbull Library, ref. APG-1581-1/2-G. Bottom right: The ebullient Dr Bruno David and some his subjects in “the climbing fish experiment”. Photo: Environment Waikato.

Sources/further reading: Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand

4 thoughts on “The history of a little fish – whitebait decline in New Zealand

  1. Bruno David October 21, 2010 / 1:33 pm

    Thank you envirohistory NZ for writing this article. We keep trying to make a difference but I often feel as those we are losing more ground than we are making. Some basic respect for nature and trying to work in with it rather than always against it would go a long way. Last year I was involved in a expert panel where we undertook the re-ranking of our native fish. After doing some fairly rudimentary analyses of the NZ freshwater fish database it was pretty obvious than in the last decade in particular the decline in native (mainly endemic) fish species at a presence absence level of evaluation was very concerning. The true manifestation of what we have done to our aquatic environments nationally is starting to show up even at this coarse scale….so much so that many of the so called ‘common’ species have now been placed into declining categories. It is a bit of a sad read but your readers may be interested in the paper on this, just published in the New Zealand Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research (Allibone et al. 2010) p 1-17.
    This slow erosion of presence of iconic endemic species is the result of multiple human pressures occurring across the landscape which include but are not limited to land use intensification, water abstraction, introduction of exotic species and the incessant disruption of river networks (i.e. barriers both chemical (e.g metals in stormwater runoff) and physical (e.g dams, weirs, culverts). While individually each of these human pressures may constitute a ‘minor’ component within this acknowledged decline, cumulatively they have had and are having a major effect on our aquatic fish fauna, the reality of which has becoming increasingly evident. As if those fish don’t have enough to deal with, they also have to skirt around hundreds of whitebaiters nets trying to scoop them up on the way through! I’m sure they taste good but when you realise what they must go through just to have a chance to live (and what they can turn into when they grow up), my conscience won’t allow me to eat one, no matter how tasty.

  2. robertguyton October 21, 2010 / 2:50 pm

    I too refuse to eat whitebait (even when I’ve won a kilo in a raffle!).
    We developed a wetland for the fish to utilize for whatever purpose they have, on the adge of an estuary (Jacob’s River at Riverton, see here:

    and have a stream that runs through my property which has galaxids in it, despite the climb.
    I was amused to read that police had to threaten baiters on the Avon with a $5000 fine to stop them fishing in the sewerage-enhanced post-earthquake waters!
    Perhaps that’s the answer!

  3. envirohistorynz October 23, 2010 / 4:21 pm

    Thank you for this comment Robert. I would be interested to hear more about your wetland regeneration efforts, and indeed, the environmental history of the Riverton area, if you feel like writing a contribution – with photos of course! 😉 For those who are as geographically ignorant as I am, Riverton is about 40 kms west of Invercargill. Interesting historical information here, including that it is Southland’s oldest European settlement:

    Also, Dr Bruno David has very generously provided envirohistory NZ with a copy of the recently published paper that he mentions in his comment. Any reader who would like a copy (PDF) can email us at, and I can send it out to you.

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