How the whitebait fishing regulations were changed from 2021 onwards and what the differences are.

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Why we needed to change the regulations

The regulations had not changed since the 1990s and were long overdue for review. The new regulations will improve the fishery’s sustainability by reducing fishing pressure on whitebait species and native fish bycatch.

They will increase equity of catching opportunities for recreational, low-volume fishers by standardising regulations across the country.

Whitebait: a taonga we need to conserve

Whitebait are the juveniles of six species of freshwater fish, which return upstream each spring to find suitable adult habitat. 

Whitebaiting – the harvesting of whitebait – is a popular activity throughout the country during the spring whitebait migrations. It is part of many New Zealanders’ identity and represents an outdoors activity that enables people to connect with friends, family, and nature. Whitebait fishing is also an important Māori tradition and a critical part of life for many whānau.

Whitebait face a range of threats and pressures, including habitat loss and degradation, poor water quality, impeded fish passage within river systems and fishing pressure. As a result, four of the six whitebait species are considered threatened or at risk. 

Better whitebait management is needed to ensure the future of the species and the fishery in Aotearoa New Zealand. DOC is progressively reviewing whitebait regulations as a step towards ensuring that whitebait thrive and whitebaiting remains a fair and sustainable activity for the current and future generations.

Whitebaiting consultation

Our goal is ensuring there are healthy populations of whitebait and that people can continue whitebaiting in the long term. It is part of an ongoing process of engagement that aims at better fishing practices to ensure the fairness and sustainability of whitebaiting in Aotearoa New Zealand. This review of whitebait management began in 2018.

It involved public engagement on ways to improve whitebait management and provide for a sustainable whitebait fishery. The engagement showed strong support for regulation changes.

Engagement 2018/19

In mid-2018 we asked New Zealanders what they thought about whitebait management. Contributions came from over 3,000 people. 2,875 people gave wide-ranging views via an online survey, while around 400 people came to drop-in sessions.

A Whitebait Working Group was established, reflecting the range of interests that New Zealanders have in whitebait. The group included people with expertise in mātauranga Māori, fisheries and species management, conservation ecology, habitat restoration, commercial and recreational fishing and policy.

We captured the views of the working group and the public in a report outlining the issues and options for whitebait management. The report was considered by the Minister of Conservation and helped guide our next steps.

New Zealanders' views on whitebait management (PDF, 5,479K)

Consultation 2020

Following our 2018/19 engagement, we consulted in January 2020 on a discussion document with proposed changes to the whitebait fishing regulations.

Improving whitebait management discussion document (PDF, 7,631K)

We received over 11,500 submissions on the discussion document. Consultation submissions showed a broad concern for the sustainability of the whitebait fishery.

Read the submissions on the 2020 consultation.

The 2020 consultation helped us revise whitebait fishing regulations. These changes improve national consistency and bring the regulations up to date.

New regulations

The revised regulations outlined below are an important step towards a sustainable whitebait fishery, but they’re only part of the process to help whitebait thrive.

We need better information to ensure better future fishery management.

DOC will work with:

  • whitebaiters
  • mana whenua
  • local communities, and
  • researchers.

Research will be conducted to understand effects of:

  • harvest on whitebait populations, and
  • changes in the size and nature of whitebait runs.

We’ll also look at the number of fishers and the nature of their fishing activity. We aim to continue improving whitebait management over the long term. Better information will help us do this.

Public input, particularly from those closely involved with whitebait, is critical.

Whitebaiting regulations and changes

Following consultation in 2019/20 on proposed regulation changes, the government decided to implement changes to current whitebait regulations. We’ll roll out the regulation changes over three seasons, starting from the 2021 fishing season.

The changes will better align the regulations for the West Coast and rest of the country.

These regulations will not affect the customary fishing rights of Māori and represent an important step towards improved whitebait management and sustainable fishing practices.

New regulations starting 2021

The regulations are in effect with the new season starting from 15 August.

Upstream limit for whitebaiting

Upstream limits to fishing apply to all Aotearoa New Zealand. Upstream limits are defined either by:

  • back pegs on the river bank where they are in place, or
  • where the water level is no longer affected by the tide.

Whitebait fishing is only allowed where water levels are affected by the tide. Back pegs will mark this limit in some rivers.

New refuges

New refuges are in and near Abel Tasman and southern Fiordland National Parks, to supplement those already in place on the West Coast. Refuges are areas where fishing for whitebait is not allowed.

We chose sites beside national parks because they have high-quality adult fish habitats. Healthy sites can support more whitebait.

Fishing methods

  • Screens are the only device allowed to divert whitebait into a net and cannot be more than 3 m in length, except when used from stands.
  • Minimum distance of 20 m between fixed fishing gear, except when used from stands.
  • Only one fishing net from a stand.
  • Fishing gear cannot exceed a quarter of a channel’s width.

Fixed fishing gear is gear set on the riverbed to catch fish, except when used from stands. Fixed fishing gear doesn’t need a person to hold it or actively move it to catch fish.

DOC doesn’t manage whitebait stands. They’re managed by regional councils under the Resource Management Act.

Regulations taking effect from 2022

A nationally consistent shortened whitebait fishing season from 1 September to 30 October.

The whitebait season currently extends over three different time periods around New Zealand. The nationally standardised shorter season will reduce fishing pressure on the most threatened species of whitebait during their peak migration period.

The Chatham Islands will retain their separate fishing season.

Regulations taking effect from 2023

Including the West Coast into the maximum overall length limit for fishing gear of 6 m nationwide.  

What’s not included in the new regulations

These regulation changes do not encompass all recommendations. We will consider future management options when better data has been gathered.

Total bans

At this time, a total ban on whitebaiting is not considered necessary to ensure healthy and restored whitebait populations. With these regulations, we’re easing fishing pressure on whitebait, but recognise that many other factors including poor habitat are affecting whitebait sustainability.

Bag limits or quotas

Whitebait runs vary greatly and with our current information, we can’t predict the run for a given season, or what an appropriate harvest limit would be. We’d need more data on the health of the fishery and current catch to consider:

  • improving fishing opportunities, or
  • catch limits as part of future management options.


Although the concept of licensing received considerable support and some opposition in our wider engagement on improving whitebait management, licensing means different things to different people.

Licensing hasn’t been ruled out as a future option, but we would need better information before proposing options for a licensing regime. Any licensing proposal would require consultation.

Banning or pay to access for commercial whitebaiting

The 2020 consultation did not propose to ban commercial whitebaiting, so the regulation changes could not include this option.

The proportion of commercial to non-commercial whitebaiting and harvest is unknown. We need better information to understand how commercial whitebaiting differs from non-commercial.

Commercial whitebaiters currently don’t have to pay to fish for whitebait. Changing the regulation of commercial whitebaiting may be considered at a later stage after further information has been gathered.

Customary fishing

These whitebait regulations are under the Conservation Act, which does not affect Māori fishing rights. No changes have been made to provisions that affect customary fishing rights.

Taking whitebait for the purpose of hui/tangi is specifically provided for in the regulations, except on the West Coast.

Clarifying the relationship between customary fisheries and these regulations requires further engagement with Māori. This engagement will take place in the coming seasons.

Current whitebait knowledge

DOC published a summary of current knowledge about conservation of whitebait in June 2018:

Conservation, ecology and management of migratory galaxiids and the whitebait fishery.

Supporting documents for engagement 2018/19

Contact us

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