Big Bay Godwits People and Whitebait
Watching a supply plane negotiate surf and wind conditions on approach to the low tide air strip at Big Bay, Trevor turns and says, ‘we’ve seen a lot of things haven’t we’. I pondered for a moment and agreed as a couple of ‘godwits’ scuttled out of danger. Arriving only days before in late September, three godwits have joined the annual spring migration of people and whitebait to Big Bay. Rather unassuming for nature negative folk, these extraordinary birds for some reason just as extraordinary, choose New Zealand to have lunch after a 12,000 kilometer non stop journey the full length of the Pacific from the North Slope of Alaska. Godwits are not water birds, so do not feed or land during one of the most significant biological feats documented.
Obviously light in condition and exhausted on arrival these medium sized voracious feeders busily regain their weight and strength. They continue to arrive during the whitebait season but most make home on New Zealand beaches north of Big Bay. Given the small dot of New Zealand in the huge vastness of the Pacific, I often wonder how many birds miss their destination altogether. They only need to miss calculate by one or two degrees, or miss negotiate the huge storms and weather events inevitably encountered. Beyond the small dot of New Zealand looms another huge vastness void of land until the ice shelf of Antarctica. Their fuel tank would be getting low by then.
Six months on, and fattened they are ready for their return trip to Alaska to breed in June. This journey however is not quite so tedious, stopping off here and there along the eastern pacific rim. Some banded (recorded) birds have made this trip twenty times.
Like godwits, whitebait vary in numbers year by year for reasons inconclusive. Extremest ‘greenies’ and media critics would have the world believe it is because of human intervention and harvesting. Catch records over the past forty years at Big Bay show clearly that our whitebait fishery is sustainable giving recent catches as good as any since recording began. Bad seasons were experienced in past years as well, but like the good seasons today they are not acknowledged by our critics. It’s doom and gloom and there has to be someone to blame. On the other hand, if the whitebait were not fished, the food chain in the rivers, made up of mostly introduced trout, could simply increase to unbalanced levels.
Whitebait like many species of wild fish remain a traditional delicacy to New Zealanders who now face an ever increasing push to the supermarkets for artificial and processed foods. The west coast is wild and exposed, facing directly into the prevailing westerly’s and on the edge of the roaring forty’s. Huge wild seas are frequent, making access from the ocean to the rivers almost impossible for whitebait if they are there at the time. Those fish will not return and will be lost to the never ending food chain in the ocean and on the beaches. That is simply the nature of things.
As a matter of interest, fat godwits are hunted through Asia on their journey back to Alaska. After all, they too are part of a food chain.