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Whitebait is a collective term for the immature fry of fish, typically between 25 and 50 millimetres long. Such young fish often travel together in schools along the coast, and move into estuaries and sometimes up rivers where they can be easily caught with fine meshed fishing nets. Whitebaiting is the activity of catching whitebait.
Whitebait are tender and edible, and can be regarded as a delicacy. The entire fish is eaten including head, fins, bones, and guts. Some species make better eating than others, and the particular species that are marketed as "whitebait" varies in different parts of the world.
As whitebait consists of immature fry of many important food species (such as herring, sprat, sardines, mackerel, bass and many others) it is not an ecologicially viable foodstuff and in several countries strict controls on harvesting exist.
The Alboran Sea is the westernmost element of the Mediterranean Sea. Whitebait have been consumed as a favoured element of the diet of peoples living along the northern coasts of the Alboran Sea in Spain, even though sale of these products has been banned.
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 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.
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. The Chinese name for these is often translated as "silver fish" in English.
Gianchetti (also bianchetti) are the whitebait of the pesce azzurro of the Mediterranean (sardines and anchovies, etc.), caught with special nets named from the Ligurian sciabegottu (similar to the net to sciabica, but with smaller dimensions) in the early months of the year.
A speciality of the Liguria cuisine, gianchetti are generally lightly boiled in salted water and served hot, dressed with oil and lemon juice. Another classic approach is to make fritters of the fish together with an egg and flour batter; finally they may simply be dipped in flour and deep fried (Frittelle di Gianchetti/Bianchetti). The gianchetti of a red colour (ruscetti, rossetti) are tougher and scaly to the palate: they are largely used to flavour fish-based sauces.
In Sicilian cuisine whitebait are known as ceruses (literally translated as "baby"). Whitebait are the principal ingredient of the Sicilian specialty croquette polpette di neonata; which are a type of rolled meatball of whitebait with parsley, and egg and/or a bit of flour to amalgamate, fried in olive oil or sometimes deep-fried in peanut oil.
In Neapolitan cuisine whitebait are known as cicenielli.
In Brindisian cuisine whitebait are known as chuma (literally foam of sea).
Whitebait is commonly eaten in Japan and known as Shirasu.
New Zealand whitebait are the juvenile of certain galaxiids which mature and live as adults in rivers with native forest surrounds. The eggs of these galaxiids are swept down to the ocean where they hatch and the young fry then move back up their home rivers as whitebait. They are much smaller than Chinese or British 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 fresh water. The other galaxiid species identified with whitebait in New Zealand are the climbing galaxias or koaro, and the species group called kokopu.
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 whitebait are 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.
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. During average to good seasons, prices vary between $50 and $70 per kilogram. Proceeds from the sale of whitebait are also taxed, with the rate being 25% in the 2012-13 tax year. 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. 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.
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. Also, a lack of shade over waterways has been shown to kill the whitebait eggs.
In the United Kingdom today, whitebait principally refers to the fry of Clupeidae fish, 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. Whitebait 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.
Records of whitebait as a food in England date back to 1612. By the 1780s it was fashionable to dine on whitebait. In those days, whitebait was thought to be a species or group on its own right, and the French zoologist Valenciennes proposed that whitebait was a new genus, which he called Rogenia. In 1903, Dr James Murie, in his 'Report on the sea fisheries and fishing industry of the Thames estuary' conducted studies on the contents of boxes sold as whitebait, the report discovered that some boxes of whitebait contained up to 23 species of immature fish, including the fry of eel, plaice, whiting, herring sprat and bass, along with shrimp, crab, octopus and even jellyfish.
For Londoners in the 19th century and before, summer excursions down the Thames to Greenwich or Blackwall to dine on whitebait were popular. For instance, the Cabinet undertook such a trip every year shortly before the prorogation of Parliament. An annual whitebait festival takes place in Southend
Given that UK and imported whitebait still consists of immature herring, sprat, sardines, mackerel, bass and many others, it is not an ecologicially viable foodstuff. Removing these fish at such a juvenile stage, before they have had a chance to grow and reproduce, might severely reduce future fish stocks. The Marine Conservation Society (MCS) is the only non-government organisation to provide independent information on the sustainability of fish stocks and species around the world, and to have a rating system for fish sustainability, in order to safeguard future stocks. The MCS suggests avoiding eating and purchasing the juvenile whitebait as it is detrimental to sustainable fish populations.
Elvers are young eels. Traditionally, fishermen consumed elvers as a cheap dish, but environmental changes have reduced eel populations. Similar to whitebait, they are now considered a delicacy and are priced at up to 1000 euro per kilogram.