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Where do whitebait fritters come from?

Schoolkids in Warkworth get a hands-on experience learning where Īnanga (whitebait) live and how they can help protect these fish from extinction

Schoolchildren looking at a box containing river waterWhitebait fritters. A classic Kiwi kai that's delicious but deadly.

Conservationists have warned that the young fish caught and cooked up as whitebait will become extinct if we don't start taking better care of them.

Schoolchildren are now finding out how to do just that, thanks to a programme called Whitebait Connection, which gets them exploring their local rivers and what lives there.

Kim Jones, Whitebait Connection National Coordinator at the Mountains to Sea Conservation Trust, says that their conservation education is different because it focuses on using actions, not words, to get New Zealanders inspired and involved in the future health of local streams, rivers, lakes and wetlands.

"The saying 'Tell me and I'll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I'll understand' is at the heart of everything we do," Kim explains. "Community conservation is about actively involving people in projects that sustain and improve the natural environment."

Discovering our hidden neighbours

Their latest trip was at Warkworth's Mahurangi River and Snells Beach stream, where Kim and her team partnered up with the Integrated Kaipara Harbour Management Group (IKHMG) to give nearly 100 students from Warkworth School a truly hands-on experience.

The students learnt how to identify native freshwater fish – including Īnanga (whitebait) and eels – as well as what is harming where these fish live and what needs to be done to protect these areas better.

They also had a go at measuring the river's health – such as by looking at its temperature, acidity and cloudiness – and what bugs act as signals that the water is polluted.

Schoolchildren looking at a box containing river water

Jane Worthington at IKHMG tells us that she saw some great learning moments while helping on the field trips.

"Everyone was surprised at how the eels travel far out to sea and return to our rivers again for breeding. And we were all shocked with how the progession of more and more houses being constructed is having such an impact on our environmental habitat," Jane says.

"I love connecting with the kids and seeing how much they absorb, how they can recite from what they learnt in class before the trip and what knowledge they retain on the day from Kim, Sophie and Paul. It's really heart-warming stuff to see our tamariki learning."

Conservation for all the family

The students also found out ways to help take care of river wildlife, such as how mowing right up to the edges of rivers cuts the long grass that protects the Īnanga eggs, and that putting up signs would help prevent people like themselves from accidentally walking on these eggs.

"The kids thought it was so cool that there is Īnanga living in Snells Beach stream," Kim says. "They were upset that there was rubbish in the stream too - many wanted to pick it up."

Kim says that she particularly loves seeing how other people react during these trips, especially when they are blown away by what they learn.

"My favourite part was watching the parents get just as engaged in the learning as the students and telling me 'thank you for today - even I learnt something!' We've also had feedback from parents that their kids are really enjoying these trips and wanting to go down to their local streams in their spare time to check out what lives there."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, some of the kids have changed their minds about tucking into a tasty fishy treat too.

"Lots of them have said they won't eat whitebait fritters anymore," Kim reveals. "A lot have never tried them and now don't want to. For others it's about improving the habitat so they can continue to enjoy them."

Watch Warkworth School's fun video!

See more photos from the two-day trip here and here.

Find out what Whitebait Connection and IKHMG are doing for Conservation Week!

About the project

This project was funded by the Unlocking Curious Minds contestable fund.

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Unlocking Curious Minds

Unlocking Curious Minds supports projects that excite and engage New Zealanders who have fewer opportunities to experience and connect with science and technology.

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