Frittering Away a Precious Resource

3 31, 2016

In the context of global fisheries challenges it may be insignificant, but in New Zealand the traditional delicacy of whitebait fritters is under threat according to recent reports. The harvesting of these immature fry of fish has been an issue in countries like Australia and the United Kingdom, and could increasingly become so in New Zealand.

A big problem in this debate, echoing that of many fisheries around the world, is simply the lack of available information. In New Zealand there is little data available about whitebait yields, and catch can be sold commercially without any licensing system in place.

Fundamentally the problem becomes that you can’t manage what you don’t know.

Data about access to whitebait fishing areas, what stock levels are present, who is fishing where and what are they selling to whom, is patchy and in places non-existent. Without this, it is difficult to make management decisions to ensure the fishery is in good health.


A vacuum of information can be filled by emotion with any restrictions on access to the fishery passionately argued. Transparency can reduce the emotion from the debate and provides all stakeholders with the information to engage in informed debate. This provides the platform for stakeholders to work together to make deliberate decisions about management of the resource.

The reality is that information comes at a price, so who should pay for the management regime in this sort of situation? A largely unregulated fishery, in some parts of New Zealand people can earn significant revenue from catching whitebait. It would seem fair that anyone making a commercial return from the harvesting of whitebait, should also share in the cost of managing it.

How can the data be collected? The technology is not so much the issue, with good processes for collection and management, the right software tools and innovations like location aware smartphone apps, collecting and managing the data is much easier today than ever before. In NZ’s commercial fisheries where access is given as a right, commercial operators have a wide set of obligations, one of which is the reporting of catch and effort data. This data is extremely valuable in managing fisheries resources.

There are some principles that should underlie the development of any fisheries management regime. In an example like the whitebait fishery, participants tend to claim the ability to fish it is a right. But with rights come obligations, including the duty to preserve this resource for future generations.

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Posted on September 16, 2015

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