Early settlers named the whitebait species 'Galaxid', after the galaxy, as they thought that the spots on their backs looked like stars in the night sky.
Whitebait catch consists primarily of the young of three species: inanga, koaro and banded kokopu; inanga is by far the most commonly caught species.
Giant kokopu, short-jawed kokopu and smelt are also occasionally present in the whitebait catch along with the young of many other fish such as eels, bullies and trout.
Most whitebait species spend part of their life cycle in fresh water and part in the sea. However, some have adapted to being landlocked in lakes and no longer have to migrate to the sea to breed e.g. dwarf inanga.
In late winter and early spring whitebait migrate back up rivers and streams, finally settling and growing in bush covered streams and swamps. The start of the migration is thought to be influenced by river flows (i.e. shortly after floods) and phases of the moon.
Mature inanga adults migrate downstream to lower river sections and estuaries to spawn in grasses covered by water during spring tides. The eggs remain in the grass until the next spring tide covers them again when the young hatch and are carried out to sea. The spawning habits of other whitebait species are not well known.
The five galaxiid species are found in many different habitats from lowland swamps to rocky streams. Their presence appears to be closely tied to overhead cover and waterside vegetation.
Giant kokopu live in swampy and heavily vegetated streams, often in pools over a mud bottom. Short-jawed kokopu, banded kokopu and koaro prefer fast flowing rocky or boulder bottomed streams with forest cover. Inanga are less "fussy" but are generally found in lower catchment waters.
One of the major problems affecting the whitebait fishery is the destruction of habitat for egg laying or adult fish. As whitebait adults tend to live in natural swamps and bush covered streams it is in the best interest of whitebaiters to ensure that adequate areas of these habitats remain.
The Department of Conservation has been active in identifying whitebait spawning habitat and arranging for its protection. Protection has involved seeking the co-operation of landowners to have spawning areas fenced off from stock. The Department sees the protection of whitebait spawning habitat as playing a major role in enhancing the lasting viability of the fishery.
Another major problem is barriers that stop young fish from getting to adult habitat.
Please note that whitebait are native fish and the giant and short-jawed kokopu are under threat in many areas!
Your assistance in keeping the whitebait fishery healthy not only benefits you, but the health of New Zealand's natural living systems. Don't take more than you need.
WBC National Inanga Spawning Programme (NISP) Resources:
Developed as part of the MBIE Unlocking Curious Minds Whitebait Connection National Inanga Spawning Programme 2016
Resource 1A - PowerPoint Introduction (495 MB)
Resource 1A Spawning Video
Resource 1A - Guided audio Inanga lifecycle visualisation
Resource 1B - Introduction Summary Booklet
Resource 1C - Inanga ID Guide
Resource 2A - Find a spawning site
Resource 2B - Locating the Saltwater Wedge
Resource 2C - Assessing Spawning habitat
Resource 3A - Installing artificial spawning habitat (straw bales)
Resource 3B - Short Term Site Maintenance
Resource 3C - Long term Site Miantenance
Pre and post straw bale installation sign templates
By Ira Seitzer
2005 National Waterways/Whitebait Connection Facilitator - Northland
Inanga (galaxias masculatus) is the most well known species of Galaxias and is found around our coastal rivers, streams, lakes and swamps, in almost any fresh water that it can reach in its upstream migration from the sea.
Its familiarity is due to the fact that the Inanga juveniles are the most important and abundant species of the infamous annual whitebait catch where it is known to make up 90% of the entire catch.
Aside from bringing great culinary pleasure to many of us, Inanga are a source of food for many animals, birds and are known prey for large eels, flounder and no doubt many other fish who feed on them.
It is vital that we are able to understand and recognise Inanga spawning grounds and their important role in the life of whitebait.