Small but mighty, where have our baitfish gone?

June 19, 2024

Originally published in Mahurangi Matters, June 2024.

Don’t judge a fish just by its size. The small baitfish such as pilchards or jack mackerels you catch off your local wharf pack a mighty punch when it comes to keeping our marine ecosystems functioning. Without them many of our favourite fish, whales, and seabirds would go hungry.

So, it’s totally unreasonable that commercial interests are harvesting over three million kilos of baitfish from the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park every year and exporting them for minimal returns.

Our precious baitfish are worth more in the ocean feeding our diverse marine life than being sold for pittance in an overseas fish market.

If you’ve spent time in the Gulf recently you would’ve noticed the scarcity of workups. Baitfish workups filled with kahawai and kingfish, diving seabirds and hungry whales used to be a common sight. Now they are rare. This is a worrying sign that baitfish populations may be in serious decline.

Because there has been no scientific assessment of baitfish population levels, officials are essentially managing this important fishery blindfolded, with no true or reliable information on how the stock is doing.

The minimal information available indicates the fishery could be in trouble as commercial catches of blue and jack mackerel in the Gulf have steadily declined since 2019, yet the catch limit has stayed the same.

With the current catch limit for jack mackerel last set in 1995, it’s overdue for a review.

There have been dynamic changes in our marine environment over the past 20 years including increased land run-off, warming ocean temperatures, and overfishing. All these factors can contribute to the depletion of our most vulnerable species.

Baitfish are an essential food source. If they are struggling to withstand excessive harvest amid the changing environment then the marine life that eats them will be the next to suffer. It’s the domino effect of having a catch limit set too high, for too long.

Shane Jones, the Minister for Oceans and Fisheries, must direct officials to complete a scientific assessment of baitfish stocks. Only then can the Minister reset catch limits at a more sustainable level, leaving more baitfish in the water to increase their populations.

We don’t want to wait for the fishery to collapse before we realise that something is seriously wrong. And that action needs to be taken now.

It’s embarrassing that our baitfish, a fundamental contributor to the marine food web, is so undervalued by humans. We do not want them to be the next victim of mismanagement, and that’s why LegaSea will be advocating for our baitfish stocks to be urgently reviewed this year.

Just because jack mackerel are small, it doesn’t mean they are any less worthy of more conservative management.