Rare treat . . . Whitebaiting is an important tradition for many families, but it is also important to ensure the fishery is sustainable for years to come. PHOTO: ALLIED PRESS FILES

There’s much to love about the spring season — warmer weather, longer days, gardens coming to life, and for many South Cantabrians, a chance to get their hands on some whitebait.

This year the whitebait season is six weeks shorter than in previous years, running from September 1 to October 30. The shortened season is part of a raft of changes introduced by the Department of Conservation over the past couple of years to help protect the fishery.

Changes to regulations around what equipment can be used and where fishers can set up caused a lot of confusion early on and the consultation process was controversial, to say the least. Some have also questioned whether a shorter season is warranted.

Some say the changes have gone too far, while others say they haven’t gone far enough.

The one thing most people agree on, however, is that we need to have a sustainable fishery for future generations.

I’m a big believer in using good quality data to inform decisions and to make sure that regulations are fit for purpose. The common goal should be to have a thriving whitebait population — good data and proper consultation is key to that.

Whitebait is an important part of our culture. They are a taonga and mahinga kai for Maori and provide amuch›loved pastime for many Kiwis.

I love hearing stories from older folk about how they learnt to fish and how they want to pass on that knowledge to their children and grandchildren. I also love hearing about families heading out together each year to their favourite spot with their favourite net.

It’s a tradition with rituals, tips and tricks passed from one generation to the next and that’s part of what makes it so special.

The banter between whitebaiters is also something to behold. They’ll go back and forth discussing how the whitebait should be cleaned, the best way to keep them cool and, of course, how to cook the perfect fritter.

Whether it’s the Opihi or Orari Rivers, Smithfield Beach or the Washdyke Lagoon, whitebaiting is taken very seriously around these parts and rightly so.

A couple of hundred grams of the translucent delicacy is an absolute treat for those who love nothing more than a whitebait fritter in a piece of bread and butter with a squeeze of lemon on top.

I can’t claim to be a whitebaiter myself — if Temuka, Rakaia and Waiau scoop nets were sitting side by side I wouldn’t be able to tell one from the other, but I fully appreciate how important this pastime is for many people around New Zealand.

I understand that there will be some people who recoil at the thought of eating whitebait, either because they have an objection to them being fished or because they don’t like the taste or can’t handle the eyes poking out from the fritter.

Regardless of taste or appearances, whitebait is an important species.

By looking after what we have and working towards restoration in areas that have seen a decline in numbers, we can ensure a strong and healthy fishery that will provide sustenance and enjoyment for generations to come.