Bluefin tuna are back 🐟 and anglers are keeping it that way

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by Deborah Hadfield

Anglers are spotting huge numbers of bluefin tuna off the coast of Britain. The magnificent fish swim thousands of miles to British waters from as far away as America. They migrate vast distances in shoals as they follow the food.

In recent years they’ve returned to the seas around the British Isles, especially Cornwall. Steven Murphy, chief executive of the UK Bluefin tuna Association, says stocks of the fish are up to five times the level they were in 2010. He believes there are a variety of reasons their numbers are increasing in UK waters. He says a very aggressive stock recovery plan that was put in place has helped. Also, the last time the fish were here in large numbers it coincided with a climatic cycle that entered a warmer phase around the early 2000s. Steve also attributes the change in the fish’s behaviour to climate change.

He says: “Climate change doesn’t affect in the bluefin directly, because they can be in the Caribbean or the Mediterranean in the summer and they can be above the Arctic Circle in the winter. But it’s more the prey species that they feed upon. Their patterns are changing.”

The history of fishing for tuna peaked in the 1930s when the British Tunny club was formed. It attracted celebrities such as John Wayne and Errol Flynn. Two of the fish caught topped 850 pounds. See our report on Fieldsports Channel.

In the 1950s the stock of large bluefin tuna disappeared from UK waters. Political pundit Nigel Farage is a bluefin enthusiast. Speaking to Charlie at the 2022 Game Fair, he says a quota agreed in the Brexit deal offers a great opportunity to exploit the return of the fish. He says bluefin first turned up in Cornwall about five or six years ago. “Anglers weren’t allowed to fish for them because we had zero quota from Europe for them,” he says. “You weren’t allowed, without any quota, to even target them on rod and line. So, we had the French, Spanish and the Portuguese landing about 25,000 tonnes a year into market and having a thriving sport fishery.”

Nigel says that, once Brexit happened, the UK became an independent registered state with the global tuna authorities and last year was the first season anglers were allowed to go out and catch bluefin tuna.

Jerry Rogers of Fastcats Fishing sails from Falmouth in Cornwall. He is preparing for the tagging season which starts in the middle of August. He says catching a bluefin tuna is a dream come true for him. He says: “It’s pretty unexplainable. It’s Formula One fishing. And to see those fish jumping up alongside the boat to measure them, look at them, photograph them, get your customers to see them, tag the fish and release them. It’s just it’s just unbelievable.”

Steven agrees with Jerry. He says it’s a bucket list experience for a lot of other anglers. He says: “It’s the noise when the real screams off. Your heart rate goes from resting to 160 in about 5 to 10 minutes. The adrenaline surge you get is huge.”

He says the fish will often take between one and 300 yards of line on their first run. Steven adds that skippers have to be calm and organised to help prepare the angler. He says: “The moment the anger gets clipped into the harness and the fish takes the weight then they really know your they’re connected to something that’s really quite primeval, incredibly powerful. And it’s quite an emotional experience the first time.”

Jerry’s customers are excited to have the opportunity to join him. Stuart Cross is an angler and shooter. He says: “It’s absolutely unbelievable. As a boy growing up I would never thought it was possible. To see these fish coming in now, as they have been for the last least six years it’s great. It can only be a winner for everybody.”

DEFRA and scientists from Exeter University started a bluefin tuna tagging programme, called ThunnusUK in 2018. It involved just one or two contracted charter skippers from a few southwestern ports. They tagged small numbers of bluefin using hi tech, high-cost satellite tags. CEFAS, the Governments scientific research arm, recognised that a CHART programme, which stands for Catch and Release Tagging, would complement that operation answering other important questions that a smaller programme cannot do.

Anglers and skippers set up the UK Blue Fin Tuna Association four years ago to campaign for a recreational fishery. The Angling Trust supports the association. The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna, ICCAT, monitors that the global rules on fishing are observed. To operate any kind of fishery the UK must specifically authorise such an operation and notify ICCAT of those intentions in the ‘annual fishing plan’ that are submitted by mid-February each year. The association believes the CHART programmes, are vital for the future of Bluefin tuna fishing.

Steven says this year it will be first time that tagging programmes are operating in all four home nations. The UK Bluefin Tuna Association is helping expand the English programme. It’s also assisting in setting up programmes in Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland. He says: “It’s helping to build that knowledge base to really understand if we do this in a way that’s sustainable, economy, viable and optimal. Asking is that a demand for it? Because we’re setting the foundation to establish if we can and should operate a fully-fledged recreational catch and release fishery going forward.”

Bluefin tuna are an amazing fish. They can live up to 40 years. They are built for speed, and they can dive down thousands of feet. Jerry says they are the ultimate fish in the water. He says: “They are Formula One fish, the racing car of the sea.”

He admires their stature, the way they are built, the way they move and the way they move. He says Bluefin tuna are known throughout the world to be the number one sports or game fish that’s targeted.

Some of the tuna that UK anglers caught and tagged last year, were tracked by scientists for 365 days. They discovered the fish returned within a few metres to where they were tagged. Steven says the CHART programme in England last year is unparalleled in terms of the amount of information we have about that interaction between anglers and bluefin.”

Anglers tagged over 700 fish last year against estimates of around 250 they thought they would catch.

Steve Porter, who is a director of the UK Bluefin Tuna Association, is a skipper who sails from Falmouth in Cornwall. He caught Bluefin as part of the tagging programme. He says the tuna are very big, with an average size of two metres. Steve says the smallest was about 1.4 meters, but the smaller ones are the rarer ones. One of the largest Steve caught was eight foot long.

He says there is nothing to compare with a Bluefin tuna in English waters.

The government has extended the Bluefin tuna tagging season until December this year.

It means more fish will be caught, tagged, and released. It’s not just good news for the scientists that track this huge predator, it also brings boosts coastal communities.

Jerry says he is hoping for plenty of bluefin has he has got 60 bookings so far. He says: “I’m just hoping that the season kicks off early so we can get out there and get stuck in it again.’ In Cornwall October is normally the cut off point for fishing for charter vessels. The Bluefin tuna season will skippers like Jerry a huge boost. This year DEFRA has allowed an extra ten charter to take part in the programme. Jerrys he’s fortunate enough to be operating one of those boats. He says: “It brings a lot of revenue to otherwise I would say it’s a pretty quiet dormant sort of Cornwall. You know, it’s bringing in trade for restaurants, pubs, bed and breakfasts. So, it’s good for the county.’

Skipper Steve Porter says for Cornwall or anywhere Bluefin tuna appear it brings great benefit to the local economy. He says: “I know from my own experience last year we did 58 trips in total. Anglers came down and many of those stayed in hotels. They were eating in restaurants. So, the benefit local economy is immense.’

The future is right for anglers who want to catch the majestic fish. The UK Bluefin Tuna Association hopes to see recreational fishing next year, DEFRA may require additional boats to be licensed and the skippers to receive training. Steve Porter says the UK Bluefin tuna Association would like to see a recreational fishery. He says: “This is a wonderful fishery, and we would like it to be shared among a larger participating audience.”

He says it is unfair to limit it to a small minority. Steve emphasises any expansion would be properly managed. He says: “It can’t be a free for all. We know that these fish have to be taken care of.”

He says the tuna will fight all the way to the boat and have to be handled carefully so the fish are protected.

Jerry says it would be a massive opportunity for more anglers to take part. He says it would be great get more boats involved. He says: “It’s just a magical moment, it’s really a dream come true.”

Steve says he feels privileged to be taking part in Bluefin tuna fishing. He says: “It’s a fish that messes with your brain. When the season ends, you can’t sleep. And when you do wake up, there’s a tuna running on the end of your line. It’s just phenomenal.”


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