Whitebait

Whitebait

[hwahyt-beyt, wahyt-]
This article is concerned with whitebait as the juvenile of various species of fish around the world; for other uses of the term see whitebait (disambiguation).

Whitebait are young fish; in Europe the term applies to young herring, but in other parts of the world it is used for similar fish of other species. Whitebait are tender and edible. The entire fish is eaten including head, fins and gut but typically each 'bait' is only 25-50 mm in length and about 3 mm in cross section.

Whitebaiting is the activity of catching whitebait.

New Zealand Whitebait

New Zealand whitebait are the juvenile of certain galaxiids which mature and live as adults in rivers with native forest surrounds. The larvae of these galaxiids is swept down to the ocean where they hatch and the sprats then move back up their home rivers as whitebait.

The most common whitebait species in New Zealand is the common galaxias or inanga, which lays its eggs during spring tides in Autumn on the banks of a river amongst grasses that are flooded by the tide. The next spring tide causes the eggs to hatch into larvae which are then flushed down to the sea with the outgoing tide where they form part of the ocean's plankton mass. After six months the developed juveniles return to rivers and move upstream to live in freshwater.

New Zealand whitebait are caught in the lower reaches of the rivers using small open-mouthed hand-held nets although in some parts of the country where the whitebait is more plentiful, larger (but not very large) set nets may be used adjacent to river banks. Whitebaiters constantly attend the nets in order to lift them as soon as a shoal enters the net. Otherwise the whitebait quickly swim back out of the net. Typically, the small nets have a long pole attached so that the whitebaiter can stand on the river bank and scoop the net forward and out of the water when whitebait are seen to enter it. The larger nets may be set into a platform extending into the river from the bank and various forms of apparatus used to lift the net.

Whitebaiting in New Zealand is a seasonal activity with a fixed and limited period enforced during the period that the whitebait normally migrate up-river. The strict control over net sizes and rules against blocking the river to channel the fish into the net permit sufficient quantity of whitebait to reach the adult habitat and maintain stock levels. The whitebait themselves are very sensitive to objects in the river and are adept at dodging the nets.

The New Zealand whitebait is small, sweet and tender with a delicate taste that is easily over-powered if mixed with stronger ingredients when cooked. The most popular way of cooking whitebait in New Zealand is the whitebait fritter, which is essentially an omelette containing whitebait. Purists use only the egg white in order to minimise interfering with the taste of the bait. Foreigners frequently react with revulsion when shown uncooked whitebait, which resembles slimy, translucent worms.

The combination of the fishing controls, a limited season and the depletion of habitat as a result of forest felling during the era of colonisation results in limited quantities being available on the market. Whitebait is very much a delicacy and commands high prices to the extent that it is the most costly fish on the market, if available. It is normally sold fresh in small quantities, although some is frozen to extend the sale period. Nevertheless, whitebait can normally only be purchased during or close to the netting season.

Australian Whitebait

In Australia whitebait refers to the juvenile stage of several predominantly galaxias species during their return to freshwater from the marine phase of their lifecycle. Comments for New Zealand are generally applicable.

Species referred to as whitebait in Australia include Common galaxias G. maculatus, Climbing galaxias or koaro, G. brevipinnis, Spotted galaxias G. truttaceus, Tasmanian whitebait Lovettia sealii, Tasmanian mudfish Neochanna cleaveri, and Tasmanian smelt Retropinna tasmanica.

Whitebait were once subject to a substantial commercial fishery but today only recreational fishers are permitted to gather them, under strict conditions and for a limited season.

United Kingdom Whitebait

In the United Kingdom whitebait refers to young sprats, most commonly herring. They are normally deep-fried, coated in flour or a light batter, and served very hot with sprinkled lemon juice and bread and butter. White bait are very hard to buy fresh unless you are down at a fishing harbour early in the morning as most are frozen on the boat.

Chinese Whitebait

Chinese whitebait is raised in fish farms and plentiful quantities are produced for export. The Chinese whitebait is larger than the New Zealand whitebait and not nearly so delicate. The frozen product is commonly available in food stores and supermarkets at reasonable prices.

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