West Coast whitebait farm backed by Provincial Development Unit

Published: 10 March, 2021

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An innovative project to farm whitebait on the West Coast is being supported by the Provincial Development Unit (PDU).

A close-up image of a plate of whitebait fritters.

A kiwi culinary delicacy - the whitebait fritter.

Whitebait is the juvenile form of the native fish, the giant kōkapu, from the fish family known to scientists as galaxiids.

The fish is a highly valued culinary delicacy and while it sells for high prices, the present commercial supply is based on harvesting the young fish as they migrate up rivers from the sea to the streams and wetlands where they will grow to adulthood.

However, as concern grows about the future of all whitebait species, there is growing interest in how to develop a commercially viable and environmentally sustainable harvest through aquaculture.

New Zealand Whitebait Limited is exploring this concept through its Kawatiri Whitebait project with the aim of establishing a whitebait farm near Westport.

The venture has the backing of both the Buller District Council and local iwi, Ngāti Waewae, and the PDU is providing the council with a $2 million grant to help support it.

The company will be providing up to $5 million to cover the rest of the $7 million project.

New Zealand Whitebait says its team includes some of the pre-eminent experts in captive whitebait breeding and they have already have undertaken a decade of research into the sustainable commercial production of whitebait.

The company is confident there is market demand for more whitebait and believes its aquaculture techniques can supply a high quality product and help develop a more sustainable industry.

The PDU has also given the Buller District Council $200,000 to help provide oversight of the project’s governance structure and establish a project steering group. This group will also include Ngāti Waewae.

The grant to the Buller District Council also provides for an equity option to be taken in the project for a West Coast organisation in the future.

The whitebait farm is expected to be completed by June 2022, providing jobs for West Coast residents.

The farm itself is predicted to create 33.5 jobs directly, with another 30 jobs developing in local food businesses once production begins.

In 2018, commercial whitebait production was identified as a key priority in the Tai Poutini West Coast Economic Development Strategy.