whitebait

Posted by Ellen
They eat guppies in New Zealand.
 
Actually, I don't know if they eat guppies there, but they definitely eat wormy little baby fish they call whitebait, which are similar to guppies in size, sliminess, and bug-eyedness.
 
Every spring, wherever rivers run into the sea in New Zealand, which is pretty much everywhere, people go whitebaiting. They rig up fine mesh nets from docks called whitebait stands or they pull up a chair along the riverbank or swing nets just inside the surfline at the river mouth. When the fish start running, the whitebaiters cook up their catch, usually as fritters made with egg and a bit of flour, often served on buttered bread.
 
The fish known as whitebait, which actually include at least five different species, are born in freshwater, get swept out to sea as babies, then return as juveniles to run upriver, where they will mature and spawn . . . if they don't get netted along the way.
 
Despite strict government regulation, the whitebait runs nowadays aren't what they used to be. A hundred years ago, whitebaiters caught more than they could ever hope to eat; they fed the excess to pigs or buried it in their gardens as fertilizer. In recent years, however, agricultural chemicals and population pressures in river valleys have destroyed much upriver whitebait habitat. Also, there's the obvious unsustainability of catching so many baby fish before they have a chance to grow up and reproduce.
 
Only in the nearly roadless region of South West New Zealand, where rivers plunge through rainforest from alpine heights to the coast, has whitebaiting remained as productive as ever. Whitebait buyers on the rivers there acquire the makings of fritters for stores and restaurants all over the country.
 
They're not cheap. In 2006, fresh whitebait went for $12.95 per hundred grams–about $60 a pound.
We showed up in country just at the end of whitebait season, though we could have tried the delicacy, thanks to the miracle of modern refrigeration. Maybe next trip. Maybe.