Whitebaiter near Timaru.
A whitebait boom or bust?
Whitebait will be available year-round and there will never be shortages again, claims a company that has started quietly farming the juvenile fish delicacy.
A company chaired by National Party supporter Sir Wira Gardiner, the husband of Education Minister Hekia Parata, is about to start selling farmed whitebait to restaurants.
Premium Whitebait, a company chaired by National Party supporter Sir Wira Gardiner, the husband of Education Minister Hekia Parata, is about to start selling farmed whitebait to restaurants.
It’s hoped the business will become a multi-million-dollar operation, eventually selling whitebait through retail outlets and exporting them.
The company, Premium Whitebait, has signed a contract with Mahurangi Technical Institute (MTI) in Warkworth, which developed the technology to breed whitebait in captivity, to take the venture to market.
Des McEnaney, president of the West Coast Whitebaiters Association, was sceptical about what a farming venture would do for stocks in the wild, as commercial operators were taking large quantities.
“The only way they could release pressure on wild stock would be to take over the commercial market and put the others out of business, and I don’t think that’s likely.”
McEnaney said he would be interested to see what happened to prices.
“If these guys come on strong and you get an increase in supply, the price drops accordingly, there’s a bit of balancing they need to think about.”
Premium Whitebait chief executive Jeremy Gardiner, Wira Gardiner’s son, said he expected the first product would hit the market around September or October.
“Initially it will primarily be restaurants, just because it will take a while for volumes to start to increase. Eventually as volumes increase we’ll sell through retail and other channels.”
Sunday Star-Times food writer Nadia Lim says whitebait are high in protein and omega 3, and low in fat.
Whitebait stocks have been in steady decline as their habitat is polluted and destroyed, but those behind the Warkworth venture believe it will turn that around by easing pressure on the fish in the wild.
“Whitebait as a species in New Zealand is endangered,” said Paul Decker, head of aquaculture research at MTI.
“I foresee a day when commercial whitebaiting will have to cease. Farming is going to be the saviour of the species frankly.”
Decker said researchers at MTI, a division of Manukau Institute of Technology’s business arm, EnterpriseMIT, had been working with all five of the native fish whose young are called whitebait, focusing on the most promising, the giant kokopu.
They had succeeded in breeding large numbers of the fish in captivity and there were now about 4000 females in tanks at Premium Whitebait’s hatchery.
“It’s called closing the life cycle, we were able to reproduce whitebait in captivity and grow them up, their babies had babies, all the mummies and daddies are doing great.”