Whitebait is a collective term for the immature fry of fish, typically between 25 and 50 millimetres long. Such young fish often travel together in schools along the coast, and move into estuaries and sometimes up rivers where they can be easily caught with fine meshed fishing nets. Whitebaiting is the activity of catching whitebait.
Whitebait are tender and edible, and can be regarded as a delicacy. The entire fish is eaten including head, fins and gut. Some species make better eating than others, and the particular species that are marketed as “whitebait” varies in different parts of the world.
Whitebait in New Zealand
New Zealand whitebait are the juvenile of certain galaxiids which mature and live as adults in rivers with native forest surrounds. The eggs of these galaxiids are swept down to the ocean where they hatch and the young fry 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. The other galaxiid species identified with whitebait in New Zealand are the climbing galaxias or koaro, and the species group called kokopu.
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.
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. 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.
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. Also, a lack of shade over waterways has been shown to kill the whitebait eggs.
During our recent trip to the West Coast, we were fortunate enough to get a chance to try this season’s freshly catch whitebait. What happened was we were driving back from the black water rafting trip in Charleston heading toward Haast. We saw this sign on the roadside of State Highway 6 saying “White Bait Patties”. We were both discussing how ignorant of us not knowing what whitebait were even after 3 years being in New Zealand. We know that it really popular in New Zealand and that’s about it. We were speculating that it could be like anchovies. I have heard from work colleague that whitebait from the West Coast was the best and you cook it like an omelette. And here we are driving during this sign pointing to the left saying White Bait. We were both undecided but Christopher took the initiative and said if we don’t do it now, we might never do it. You know what, he is right. We were here over 3 years now, we saw signs of white bait all over New Zealand and never once we went in anywhere to ask about it. We made the turn and went into the junction where the sign point us to. We saw lots of huts at first and couldn’t figure out which one to go to. But one look really appealing and the gate was opened wide and give us a really welcoming feeling. We drove in and hop off into the place.
We were greeted by a woman (Moana; whom I later only found out her name via their website) . She was really friendly and make us felt really welcome. She really took the effort and time to show and explaining to us the whitebait that they caught. From the process, the season for catching them, the type of fishes, where they catch them, how you cook them and to answering all our silly little questions. She was really awesome.
So we each had a whitebait fritter on bread. And …. yes…. it was indeed nasty and good. Such simply meal but tasty. We were also told that the season ends in 3 days and we were really lucky to eat some fresh whitebait instead of the frozen one. Yum! I do like it!
Wanna try some whitebait?
Don’t forget to stop at Moana’s place at the Waita River (about 10kms north of Haast & 120km south of the Glaciers). I read in their website that it’s family-owned business and their family had been white-baiting for a long time. Their business is called Curly Tree Whitebait and they cater to the needs of supermarkets, major distributors, restaurants, hotels and of course individuals (tourists like us).
So don’t hesitate to stop by if you are there in the West Coast. Just follow the ‘Curly Tree’ & ‘Whitebait Patties’ signs and let Moana introduce you to the world of whitebait and enjoy a yummy freshly cooked whitebait patties, the kiwiana way on the banks of where it’s caught.
Waita River Reserve SH6 HAAST
September to February Hours: Mon – Sun: 9am – 7pm
March to August Hours: Depending on supply Mon – Sun: 10:30am – 6pm
- Cantabrians flock to first whitebait festival (radionz.co.nz)
- Cantabrians snap up 500kg of whitebait (stuff.co.nz)
- Stop whitebait sales for cultural reasons – trust (radionz.co.nz)
- Where have all the whitebait gone? (nzherald.co.nz)