Manaki Whitebait aquaculture manager Paul Decker (left) looks on as marine biologist Dr Roger Grace feeds whitebait during a Mountains to Sea Wānanga conference held at the fish farm recently.
The Manaki Whitebait fish farm in Woodcocks Road, in Warkworth, is developing what could be the key to keeping whitebait from extinction and still on the dinner table.
Whitebait is a freshwater fish that comes in five species – banded kokopu, giant kokopu, inanga, koaro and shortjaw kokopu.
Three species are endangered, including the giant kokopu, which is bred by Manaki Whitebait.
Manaki Whitebait aquaculture manager Paul Decker says there is no limit to how much whitebait can be fished so unless a source is created outside of the wild they will become extinct with their growing popularity as a food source.
“We’ve managed to reproduce all five species on our farm and it’s sustainable,” Paul says.
“It’s a breakthrough really because it means we can save them from extinction.”
He says Minister of Conservation Maggie Barry has shown interest in the project and its possibilities.
Manaki Whitebait started to farm the fish in 2006 as a conservation project, but is now also reproducing the fish to sell as table food after receiving financial backing from New Zealand Premium Whitebait.
“Lots of groups were dealing with the conservation of birds and land animals at the time, but no-one was doing freshwater fish.”
Last year the farm produced just over one tonne of whitebait, but hopes to deliver at least 25 tonnes a year in two years time.
“When you’re small, things like feed are more expensive per weight, but we are scaling up to a commercial size.”
Paul says they are currently the only facility farming whitebait and will have to move to a coastal premises to deliver their future target. Although whitebait live in freshwater, they hatch and grow as larvae in saltwater before swimming back upstream to freshwater.
Manaki Whitebait has made a number of discoveries during its time farming the fish, including the fact that whitebait will not climb over a black surface.
“When we started the farm we had problems with whitebait trying to climb out of their tanks, getting stuck on the walls and dying. We found the only tanks that didn’t have that issue were the black ones and we realised that they won’t climb a black surface.”
Paul says this is a game changer as many fish passages to help them upstream in the wild are black, which could be affecting their movement.
“We are constantly working with the Department of Conservation (DoC) and other environmental groups around these discoveries.”
They will also work with DoC and the Tawharanui Open Sanctuary Society on June 10, when 10,000 giant kokopu whitebait will be released in two streams at Tawharanui Regional Park.