Exciting reality or misguided? The concept of a bluefin tuna fishery around the coastlines of the UK has divided opinion since the proposal first surfaced three years ago.
The idea has been branded irresponsible by the Green Party, regional wildlife trusts and marine conservationists on the grounds that the huge Atlantic fish are endangered. But with members of Parliament, fisheries experts, trade and consumer angling bodies and charter businesses firmly in support, the reality of a BFT catch-and-release fishery appears to be getting ever closer, with a decision from Fisheries Minister Victoria Prentis expected as early as the end of this month.
But despite the early momentum, support from the tackle industry has been conspicuous by its absence. “Although several representations have been made, no manufacturers have been prepared to provide any moral or financial support, which is disappointing and surprising given that we have a world-class BFT fishery all across the UK’s western waters,” Steven Murphy, head of the UK Bluefin Tuna campaign told Angling International.
The bluefin tuna can grow to 1,500lb and ten feet long and the torpedo-like sport they offer has long been coveted by recreational fishermen. They are becoming increasingly common off the Cornish coast in particular, as well as frequenting Irish, Welsh and Scottish waters. And the argument that the species is threatened is wearing thin, according to Murphy, who set up the campaign in 2017. “There are three ‘threatened’ categories, critically endangered, endangered and vulnerable,” he explains. “Below that is ‘near threatened’. The 2015 assessment of Eastern Atlantic/Mediterranean stock by the Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which is 90% of the global stock, came out as ‘near threatened’. But it hasn’t stopped people citing the endangered status.”
Further support for the campaign looks likely to come from the ICUN’s latest update, which will again place the species outside of the ‘endangered’ classification. Murphy believes it will at least match the 2015 status and may improve still further to fall into the ‘least concern’ category, which it fell just short of in 2015. He also points to an International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Salmon (ICCAT) report that concludes there are no concerns that overfishing may be occurring and refers to a ‘rapid increase in the abundance of stocks’.
Although a UK CHART (catch and release tagging) programme was rejected in Autumn last year, Murphy takes heart from the fact that the weight of lobbying behind the idea led to phase two consultations in January to finalise a final working design due for completion in April. A decision on whether a CHART scheme for England will be adopted is expected by the end of April. Murphy is optimistic of a positive outcome. If approved, 15 authorised charter vessels across the south and south-west will be authorised to take paying customers to catch BFT for tagging. The programme would run from August to mid-November. Scotland would almost certainly run a similar operation this Autumn.
Ireland has been running a CHART scheme for more than two years, and the return of BFT off the Welsh coast is being hailed as a ‘massive opportunity’ by recreational fishing groups. Julian Lewis Jones, film actor and patron of the Welsh Federation of Sea Anglers, told BBC Wales there is potential for a world-class recreational catch and release tuna fishery that would boost tourism. The Plaid Cymru, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties all support the move and the Labour Welsh government says it is ‘engaged with the DEFRA-led UK Bluefin Tuna CHART project’. But wildlife trusts have again expressed concern, with Policy Director Joan Edwards saying the tuna’s recovery could be adversely affected.
Cornwall MP Derek Thomas (Conservative), who recently joined forces with Plymouth’s Labour MP, Luke Pollard, to lobby the Government to approve the plan, believes the move will help boost the recovery of coastal communities that have suffered during COVID. Their argument is based on a pilot project that would allow the fish to be caught, tagged and released to enable better understanding of the increase in the species’ numbers and enhance their recovery.
“COVID has really hit the charter boat and recreational fishing sector, with businesses across the region facing real financial difficulties,” said Thomas.
“This fishery would give a new selling-point to an industry that is worth more than commercial fishing to the UK economy. Having worked with Cornish charter boat operators on this issue, I know they would seize the opportunity to participate in a catch-and-release fishery for BFT.”
The Angling Trust, the representative body for anglers in England and Wales, also strongly supports the proposal. However, both the Green Party and the Cornwall Wildlife Trust strongly oppose the fishery. Matt Slater, fisheries officer for the Cornwall Wildlife Trust, believes that a more open fishery with less experienced people could result in injury to the fish. “We are concerned,” he said. “You can release a fish that looks quite healthy, but there are long-term effects. It’s easy to get excited about the potential economic benefits but this is a species recovering from overfishing.”
Speaking for the county’s Green Party, marine conservationist Samuel Ramsden described the project as ‘irresponsible’. “Mr Thomas has no understanding either of these fish or of marine conservation. Bluefin tuna are an endangered species and any tagging should be carried out as part of limited and strictly controlled projects.”
Bluefin tuna have been absent from Cornish waters for nearly a century, their disappearance attributed to commercial overfishing. They have only reappeared in the last decade. “There has been a dramatic recovery,” said Murphy. “Now a UK CHART programme providing hundreds of capture, data recording, tagging and release events is exactly that kind of ‘rigorous science’ that will further our knowledge of this species. Ireland, Denmark and Sweden have all pursued this scientific and economic opportunity. The UK stands out in failing to do so.”