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.
National and Northland and Auckland WBC Coordinator
Kia ora koutou! I am the national coordinator for the Whitebait Connection programme and trustee of its founding trust the Mountains to Sea Conservation trust. I've been involved in environmental education since 2003 and my favourite part of the job is being out in the environment - natures classroom! I'm also an experienced coordinator of WBC's sister programme, Experiencing Marine Reserves (EMR), and co-founder of the Whangarei Drains To Harbour stormwater awareness campaign and Mangrove Discovery Programme. I am a graduate of Environmental Management, Conservation, Business Administration and Computing and was lucky enough to study in Northland where I lived and worked with my husband Blair and kids Zayne and Oceana, until 2014 when we moved to Warkworth, Auckland by the Mahurangi River.
Phone: (09) 425 9397 or 027 243 4818