Whitebait diaries

whitebait smallStaff at Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu have been questioning Te Waihora fishermen about their whitebait catches over the past few seasons with the aim of assessing catch volumes, how much variation there is from year to year and to hear opinions on what time of the season is best to open the lake up to the sea to get the best catches. The whitebaiters were given diaries to record details of this season’s catch.

Whitebait can only migrate in from the sea when Te Waihora is artificially opened, and southerly storms can close the lake up shortly after opened, therefore getting a fortuitous opening timing can make or break a season for the local whitebaiters.

Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu and Environment Canterbury’s joint decision to open the lake has to consider a whole range of aims, such as flooding prevention and passage of young tuna (eel) and pātiki (flounder) into the lake, and there has to be enough water in the lake to create an opening in the first place.

Whitebait is predominantly the young of Inanga (Galaxias maculatus), but there are four other fish species from the galaxiid family that are sometimes caught in the nets too – shortjaw kōkopu, banded kōkopu, giant kōkopu, and koaro. (If you ever catch golden-coloured bait, you could consider releasing them, as they are from the rarer species of banded kōkopu and giant kōkopu).

Inanga and koaro adults would have been both very abundant in Te Waihora in the past, and were harvested in large amounts. Koaro as a species has unfortunately almost completely disappeared from Te Waihora, and other lakes in Aotearoa.

1)Fishing method for whitebait in a lake.  Source: George French Angas, The New Zealanders illustrated. London: Thomas M'Lean, 1847.

 Fishing method for whitebait in a lake.
Source: George French Angas, The New Zealanders illustrated. London: Thomas M’Lean, 1847.

Whitebaiting is not a modern phenomenon. Māori developed many expert ways of catching whitebait, which were often adopted by the early Europeans using modern materials. Te Waihora was a good source of whitebait for the people of Ngāi Te Ruakihikihi, based at Taumutu and Ngāi Tahu whānui passing through on their travels.

Elsdon Best in his 1929 book ‘Fishing Methods and Devices of the Māoridescribed one method of how whitebait were caught in the lake  with a long closely-woven harakeke (flax) net called a kaka. One end was held onshore, while the other end was scooped around by people in a small waka. Catches were often placed on mats to dry in the sun, then stored away for later consumption.

Whitebait catches are famously variable from day-to-day, site-to-site, and year-to-year. This is  due to many factors that are not fully understood by scientists. This holds true for Te Waihora, as the whitebaiter diaries have shown.

One factor for a successful catch is good spawning of the adults in the prior autumn. However, spawning habitat of the whitebait species has been degraded and destroyed over the past few centuries by drainage of wetlands, and replacement of stream bank vegetation with pasture grasses and grazing animals.

Inanga are known to lay their eggs on vegetation, such as native grasses, in the tidal zone on a spring tide between fresh and salt water. Eggs are left high and dry when the tide drops, then are flushed out to sea in following spring tides. People are starting to discover where these inanga spawning areas are, (or were in the past), and they are restoring them. The spawning habits of the other whitebait species are still shrouded in mystery.

Riparian (streamside) planting days organised by agencies such as Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu, regional councils, and stream care groups are ultimately beneficial to whitebait.