Whitebait: The small fish with a big price tag
What are whitebait?
In New Zealand the term whitebait describes the juvenile forms (around 4–5 centimetres long) of five species of the fish family Galaxiidae. The New Zealand Maori word for whitebait is īnanga.
How do you fish for them?
The term used when fishing for these small fish is ‘whitebaiting’. The usual method to catch whitebait is to use a fine-meshed net that is hand held or set along riverbanks. The fish are transparent when young making them difficult for predators to see so often when fishing for them you ‘walk’ behind a school and guide them into your net.
Are there regulations to catch them?
Over one hundred years ago in New Zealand whitebait were weighed in tons; the next century it could be measured in kerosene tins, then pounds and now measurement is more common in cups as fewer whitebait are caught.
Some reasons for the drop in numbers include overfishing, wetlands being drained, sawdust washed from timber mills, and agricultural run-off. The greatest damage is done by livestock trampling the vegetation along the river banks, which destroys the habitat needed for developing eggs.
Today, the fishing regulations are overseen by the Department of Conservation. To read the whitebait regulations, visit their website.
Where to find whitebait
Whitebait are often found swimming in schools along the New Zealand coast, before they make their way upstream from the sea, swimming near the river’s edge. Large shoals are referred to as runs.
The īnanga (Galaxias maculatus) is one of many species of whitebait, but they make up about 95 percent of the whitebait we eat in mainland New Zealand. They are part of a wider family of freshwater fish – the ‘galaxiids’ – which live exclusively in the Southern Hemisphere.
The same species of whitebait swim in the Chatham Islands, the rivers of Chile and Argentina, in the Falkland and Lord Howe Islands, and in Tasmania in Australia.
Whitebait are found throughout New Zealand at locations including the Bay of Plenty, Otaki River, Awakino River, Taieri River, lower Clutha River, and the Caitlins with the best-known and largest whitebait runs in South Westland.
When is it whitebait season?
Whitebait comes into season in spring – generally, it lasts anywhere from mid-August to November with the Chatham Islands having a different season.
Whitebait is becoming more difficult to catch and if you visit any Kiwi supermarket or fishmonger the price tag reflects this – fresh whitebait retails for around NZD100-125 per kilo.
The most popular way of cooking whitebait in New Zealand is the whitebait fritter, which is essentially an omelette containing whitebait. Purists use only the egg white in order to minimize interfering with the taste of the fish. It’s simple to make – mix together a few eggs, two tablespoons of flour, a teaspoon of baking powder and salt, and as much whitebait as you have. Spoonfuls are then fried in butter or oil. The fritters are often eaten between slices of buttered white bread
5 top Kiwi places to try whitebait:
- Cibo in Auckland’s Parnell offers two options served with a delicious soy, lime and ginger butter – either traditional in an omelette or lightly dusted in flour and crispy fried.
- Curly Tree Whitebait on the West Coast State Highway 6 just north of Haast. If you’re traveling from the Franz or Fox Glaciers to Wanaka and Queenstown you’ll go via Haast. ‘Curly’s’ must be one of the most iconic places in New Zealand to try whitebait fritters.
- Invercargill, at the tip of the South Island, will be kept happy with whitebait fritters hot out of the pan by Jimmy Fairweather. Jimmy owns a food cart and you’ll find him parked up at the Gala Street Reserve on Mondays where he’ll be dishing up whitebait fritters in season as well as his famous seafood chowder.
- For a no-frills whitebait fritter served with buttered bread, stop into Jimmy The Fish on Ponsonby Road in Auckland. Egg, flour, salt, pepper, fresh whitebait – done!
- Another Ponsonby Road eatery, the iconic and uber-cool SPQR
will keep all modsters happy with their gluten free fritter served with a lemon butter and chive sauce.
If you’d love to try your hand at whitebaiting, get in touch with us for ideas about great locations throughout New Zealand where we can customise outdoor adventure packages that suit your needs.
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