By Emily Bryan
Unlicensed whitebait fishermen are copping big fines for taking more than their fair share.
Whitebait patties and fritters will be back on the menu next month when the Tasmanian fishery opens for six weeks.
The limited season is designed to protect the tiny morsels from over-fishing.
Unlicensed poachers supplying a black market for the delicacy are an ongoing frustration.
A dozen thefts have been prosecuted in the state's north-west in the past year, attracting fines of up to $130 per kilogram.
In May, two men from Stanley were fined more than $10,000.
The Inland Fisheries Service's John Diggle said poaching threatened the sustainability of the fishery.
"If they're caught before they can spawn, their life cycle is basically broken and the fishery can collapse," he said.
"That's the biggest issue we're trying to deal with, is protecting the true Tasmanian whitebait from over-exploitation.
"As we speak there's operations underway hopefully targeting more individuals."
Whitebait can be caught legally from October 1 to November 11.
During that period, fisherman Doug King will head out up to four times a week in search of the tiny fish which he said were vulnerable to poachers.
"They start spawning and they get there with their boats and they get masses of them," he said.
"Inland Fisheries can't be everywhere but they try their best."
Inland Fisheries stakes out suspected hotspots but catching all the thieves requires a much wider net to be cast.
Members of the public are urged to report suspicious behaviour.