By Diane McCarthy, Local Democracy Reporter, and Hazel Osborne, Whakatāne Beacon Emergency Services Reporter
Mixed messages from government departments is causing confusion among whitebaiters about whether they are allowed to fish.
Department of Conservation (DOC) media and communications manager Bronwyn Saunders told the Whakatane Beacon that whitebaiting was not permitted under alert level 4, while police appear to have given it their blessing.
With the lockdown falling right at the beginning of the whitebaiting season, many people have been making use of their time off work to go whitebaiting. Up to 20 people at a time have been seen on the banks of the Rangitaiki River at Thornton with more fishing the Whakatāne River.
"As the government health orders are focused around encouraging people to stay home, and only leave for essential food shopping and healthcare, and that any exercise needs to local and low risk, it is clear that whitebaiting is not permissible," Saunders said.
However, DOC rangers are not regulating the fishing as they are not essential workers.
The DOC website also lists whitebaiting as one of the activities that is not allowed under alert level 3 yet it is listed on the government's Covid-19 website as a permitted activity at this level.
A Thornton resident, who asked not to be named, is upset police are turning a blind eye.
"There are more people turning up here every day in their cars and the police have stopped coming down here at all because they don't want to be seen to be doing anything. I am really disappointed in the police," he said.
"The message from government is quite clear to stay home except to buy food or access medical help. These people are putting us all at risk of an even longer lockdown.
"I have had reports and first-hand discussions of the main excuses and it seems to be a misguided belief that tangata whenua are not restricted by level 4 rules. I was told by one whitebaiter that whitebaiting is a traditional activity that is allowed under the Covid lockdown rules. Some people have become quite abusive to some of my neighbours when they have told them they have not supposed to be whitebaiting.
According to police, whitebaiters are not breaking any rules.
Senior Sergeant Al Fenwick said the best information police had was that whitebaiting, or food gathering in a safe manner, was above board. He said police were taking a commonsense approach to the activity.
As long as there were no bubbles breached, people were staying close to home, not travelling to participate in whitebaiting and were keeping safe on land - the activity was permitted.
This would continue to be their approach, although he warned that could change.
The Thornton resident said he had been in touch with police, DOC, the Ministry of Primary Industries and Whakatāne district councilors about the issue and he was aware that breaches had been reported to the Covid-19 compliance centre.
"The simplest solution would be to have the whitebait season suspended until we return to level 2, to take away any doubt and help save the country."
Whakatane District Council communications and engagement manager Alexandra Pickles said the issue was not the council's domain.
"The government has provided clear guidance through its Unite Against Covid-19 website. Whakatāne District Council is supporting all guidance and messaging through official channels," Pickles said.
"If members of the public are concerned that someone is not following the rules, breaches can be reported to the Covid-19 Compliance Centre through covid19.govt.nz and dealt with accordingly."
Saunders also referred people to the government Covid-19 compliance website to lodge complaints if they had concerns about people breaking rules.
"DOC is not responsible for compliance under alert level 4 - that would be a matter for police. We are clear about it and it aligns with government instructions for people to stay at home and only leave for essential shopping, healthcare and local exercise."
On the government's Covid-19 website, people are asked not to go swimming, surfing, boating, hunting or do any other outdoor activities at alert level 4 where they could get injured or lost. Whitebaiting or other land-based fishing is not specifically mentioned.
The website does say whitebaiting is permitted during alert level 3.
At this level, fishers are asked to fish locally, stay two metres from other river users and not to use motorised vehicles to get to their fishing spot.
They legally must also comply with all current whitebait regulations, including only fishing from the bank of rivers or the water's edge, not entering the water and not using a boat to fish.
Local Democracy Reporting is a public interest news service supported by RNZ, the News Publishers' Association and NZ On Air.