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New Zealand Whitebait

The word whitebait does not refer to a single species. It is a general term used in many countries to describe small freshwater fish that are tender and edible. In New Zealand it describes the juvenile forms (around 4-5 centimetres long) of five species of the fish family Galaxiidae.

New Zealand whitebait mature and live as adults in rivers with native forest surrounds. The larvae of these galaxiids are swept down to the ocean where they hatch and the sprats then move back up their home rivers as whitebait.

The most common whitebait species in New Zealand is the common galaxias or inanga, which lays its eggs during spring tides in autumn on the banks of a river amongst grasses that are flooded by the tide. The next spring tide causes the eggs to hatch into larvae which are then flushed down to the sea with the outgoing tide where they form part of the ocean's plankton mass. After six months the developed juveniles return to rivers and move upstream to live in freshwater.

In spring whitebait make their way upstream from the sea, swimming near the river's edge. Large shoals are referred to as runs. Big runs often follow floods, a few days after the water clears - usually in the daytime on a rising tide.

New Zealand whitebait are caught in the lower reaches of the rivers using small open-mouthed hand-held nets although in some parts of the country where whitebait are more plentiful, larger (but not very large) set nets may be used adjacent to river banks. Whitebaiters constantly attend the nets in order to lift them as soon as a shoal enters the net. Otherwise the whitebait quickly swim back out of the net. Typically, the small nets have a long pole attached so that the whitebaiter can stand on the river bank and scoop the net forward and out of the water when whitebait are seen to enter it. The larger nets may be set into a platform extending into the river from the bank and various forms of apparatus used to lift the net.

Whitebaiting in New Zealand is a seasonal activity with a fixed and limited period enforced during the period that the whitebait normally migrate up-river. The strict control over net sizes, and rules against blocking the river to channel the fish into the net permit sufficient quantity of whitebait to reach the adult habitat and maintain stock levels. The whitebait themselves are very sensitive to objects in the river and are adept at dodging the nets.

The New Zealand whitebait is small, sweet and tender with a delicate taste that is easily over-powered if mixed with stronger ingredients when cooked. 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 minimise interfering with the taste of the bait. Foreigners frequently react with revulsion when shown uncooked whitebait, which resembles slimy, translucent worms.

The combination of the fishing controls, a limited season and the depletion of habitat as a result of forest felling during the era of colonisation results in limited quantities being available on the market. Whitebait is very much a delicacy and commands high prices to the extent that it is the most costly fish on the market, if available. It is normally sold fresh in small quantities, although some is frozen to extend the sale period. Nevertheless, whitebait can normally only be purchased during or close to the netting season.

Whitebait are the juveniles of five species:

  • īnanga ( Galaxias maculatus)
  • kōaro ( Galaxias brevipinnis)
  • banded kōkopu ( Galaxias fasciatus)
  • giant kōkopu ( Galaxias argenteus)
  • shortjaw kōkopu ( Galaxias postvectis).


Rules and Regulations

The Department of Conservation is responsible for managing New Zealand's whitebait fisheries.

The regulations summarised here are for the whole of New Zealand except the West Coast of the South Island.

They summarise the Whitebait Fishing Regulations 1994 and 1995 amendments. It is a guide only, has no legal standing, and does not contain all the rules. Please familiarise yourself with the full regulations, obtainable at any Bennett's Government Bookshop, or online at the New Zealand Legislation website.

You can view a summary of the West Coast whitebait regulationsor contact DOC's West Coast Tai Poutini office.

Please observe the regulations and conserve our species.


The whitebait season is open between 15 August and 30 November (inclusive)in all areas of New Zealand except the West Coast of the South Island and the Chatham Islands.

The season runs between 1 December to the last day of February (inclusive)in the Chatham Islands.

The taking of whitebait at all other times is prohibited. Fishing is only permitted between 5 am and 8 pm OR between 6 am and 9 pm when New Zealand Daylight Saving is being observed.

Fishing gear

‘Fishing gear' includes all nets, screens, lines or other devices that are used, or are capable of being used, to take whitebait. ‘Drag net' means any net or any rope, material or device used in conjunction with the net that is a) weighted on the bottom edge, and b) operated by surrounding any whitebait and being drawn through any water.

Whitebait nets must have a mouth no larger than 4.5 m (measured around the inside of the net frame) and framing material no wider than 120 mm. Drag nets must be no taller than 1 m in height and be flat when laid on a flat surface. Both whitebait nets and dragnets must be no more than 3.5 m in length.

No fishing gear shall:

  • exceed more than one-third of the water channel width
  • be used in conjunction with another person's gear to exceed more than one-third of the channel width
  • exceed 6 m in total length

No person shall set or use more than one whitebait net at a time. Every person who sets or uses a whitebait net must remain within 10 m of the net. Fishing gear must be removed from the water at the end of fishing or the end of the day, whichever is earlier. No person shall possess whitebait in conjunction with any whitebait net that is not permitted to be used under the whitebait regulations, whether or not that net is being used for fishing at the time.


Unlawfully taken fish must be immediately returned to the waters from which they were obtained, taking care to ensure their survival. No person shall discard or dump on shore any fish taken when fishing for whitebait.

No person shall fish for whitebait within 20 m of any tide gate, floodgate, confluence or culvert, or fish from any bridge, or from any vessel. Nothing in these regulations permits any person fishing for whitebait to interfere with, alter or modify the natural bed or banks of any river, stream, estuary or channel.


Persons offending against these regulations may be fined up to $5000.


This information about the rules and regulations is from the DOC website. Please contact them for updated and further information.



All that is needed is egg, salt, milk to form a batter mix and a bit of butter to cook them in with a frying pan.

Here is a great website to tell you more about NZ Whitebait and cooking NZ Whitebait

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