Memo to Kate: Westport has gone wimpish and – good grief – is considering a whitebaiting ban

Alf will be going out to bat for West Coast whitebaiters who have run into the silly side of our health and safety laws.

Port authorities are considering invoking those laws to ban a West Coast whitebaiting tradition that goes back several generations.

Westport Harbour chief executive Trish Casey is quoted (here) as saying the port company has been unable to find any way to mitigate the risks to them of under-wharf fishing.

“We know this issue is important to those who enjoy this practice, but the staff, directors and shareholders of Westport Harbour are exposed to unacceptable liability from the practice.”

And what sort of statistics can they muster in support of their spoil-sport proposal?

The only relevant figures Alf could be find in the NZ Herald report on the matter suggests the risk is minimal. No, negligible.

A spokesman for the aggrieved whitebaiters says there have been only two serious accidents at the wharf. Neither involved whitebaiters.

The Westport Harbour bosses have gone wimpish nevertheless and are considering banning whitebaiting under the wharf.

And so –

More than 50 unhappy whitebaiters attended a meeting about the proposal last night called by harbour officials.

Harbour authorities told them they were worried about the safety of people accessing port operational areas and the harbour company’s liability for any accidents. They gave whitebaiters a fortnight to come up with alternatives to a ban.

The whitebaiters formed a five-person committee to seek legal advice.

Alf will have a chat with his colleague Kate Wilkinson.

She’s our splendid Minister responsible for health and safety and all that malarkey.

A week or so ago she was announcing a $37 million funding boost over the next four years and had ordered a full review of New Zealand’s health and safety system by an independent taskforce to ensure it is fit-for-purpose.

She said –

“This investment will bolster the health and safety inspectorate and support initiatives to help improve the culture of workplace safety in New Zealand.”


Ms Wilkinson says the independent taskforce, once established, will be asked to report back by the end of the year with fresh ideas to improve the system.

Obviously it should look at the whitebait danger.

The whitebaiters had been braced to lose their stands under the coal wharf if and when Bathurst Resources begins a $30 million port upgrade.

However, they thought they would retain access to the rest of the wharves

“If you are not in the [Bathurst] area why shouldn’t you be allowed to whitebait? This is a tradition,” said committee member Paul Bonisch, whose family has fished under the wharf for 60 years.

Allowing whitebaiters access to the wharf during the 10-week whitebait season wasn’t too much to ask, especially as conditions usually meant they could only fish for about five weeks, Mr Bonisch said.

Whitebaiters had a long history of co-operating with harbour authorities. They vacated when ship movements or port work were taking place.

To his knowledge there had been only two serious accidents at the wharf, neither involving whitebaiters.

Another committee member, Dean Skilton, said he could understand harbour authorities trying to limit their liability and hoped whitebaiters could find a solution.

“The reality is, unless we can get a lawyer to state … we take liability away from the harbour board, I think we are sunk.”

None of this means whitebaiting is without risks.

Alf recalls two whitebaiters dying on the West Coast within 24 hours a few months ago.

One woman slipped and knocked her head while fishing at the Waimangaroa River mouth, north of Westport.

Another woman, who had just been whitebaiting, died after she fell off her bicycle on to concrete in Westport.

She had been whitebaiting near the Westport wharf with her partner.

She had cycled a short distance before veering over a ledge and falling about 1.5 metres on to concrete in Gladstone St at about 1.30pm.

She suffered serious head injuries in the fall and was taken to Westport Hospital for treatment before being airlifted to Christchurch. She died en route.

This fatality presumably happened on a patch administered by the Westport District Council.

Maybe the council should consider banning cycling.

Nah. That’s absurd.

And so is the whitebaiting ban now under consideration.

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