It's a delicacy that's becoming a rarity, but a new facility in Bluff is aiming to keep whitebait lovers satisfied, sustainably.
The country's first commercial whitebait farm, led by Manāki Whitebait, is gearing up to produce 50 tonnes of fish a year.
"In an aquaculture point of view, it's like putting man on the moon, just mind blowing," Manāki Whitebait project manager Paul Decker said.
The project is the result of 16 years of research into breeding whitebait.
It originally started in Warkworth, where researchers tried to breed species in captivity.
Teams managed to successfully breed five New Zealand whitebait species, four of which are endangered, by collecting adult eggs and milt, otherwise known as whitebait sperm, and placing them in an incubator.
"Twenty-four days later they hatch and 12 weeks later you eat them," Decker said.
Researchers manipulated the temperature of the water to mimic the changes of the season, so now the fish can be bred all year round.
They identified the giant kōkopu as the only commercially viable species, and now have 50,000 breeding adult giant kōkopu, more than half the number estimated in the wild.
"This is the beginning of a new era and it'll make an incredible difference that we'll be able to consume whitebait as we wish all year round and therefore it must alleviate pressure on wild stock," Decker said.
Manāki is owned by Tahu Whaoa Group Holdings, the commercial arm of the Ngāti Tahu – Ngāti Whaoa Runanga Trust.
The trust's general manager Evelyn Forrest said it's a great breakthrough for Aotearoa.
"It's been a very long journey of development of scientists working together, a collaborative approach between western science, marine biologists and iwi really supporting this kaupapa," she said.
The Warkworth facility will remain as a site for breeding fish, and the new facility in Bluff will be for larvae production.
Decker said the biggest expense for commercially producing whitebait in giant tanks is electricity, to ensure optimum water temperature. The second largest cost is water.
"We decided to relocate to Bluff as there's already a licenced fish facility there with easy access to freshwater and seawater - this is essential for breeding whitebait as we need to be able to replicate their journey from the river to the ocean," he said.
"In Warkworth we needed to transport salt water in, which proved too costly."
The project was possible thanks to a $998,000 investment from MPI's Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures Fund.
Tahu Whaoa Group Holings also matched the MPI funding, along with other investors.
"We know what it's like to have a taonga species that we love and want to protect, so it's really awesome that we are able to enhance a population of whitebait by farming here in the Bluff," Forrest said.
Two-hundred-and-fifty kilograms can be produced every two weeks, with plans to scale up to 50,000kg per year.
Restaurants are expressing strong interest already.
"If we can provide that market via farming whitebait surely that has to be good for our kōkopu for our taonga species," Forrest said.
The first supply of whitebait for consumption is expected to be available from February next year.