Landing a giant bluefin tuna is a challenge – not least because anglers around the UK have only been allowed to do it for the last two years. The CHART programme, funded by the Westminster government, licences some tuna sportfishing boats in Devon, Cornwall, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.
Now tuna anglers are facing a much tougher challenge: to persuade politicians to secure its future. DEFRA officials have told the UK Bluefin Tuna Association that the catch-and-release CHART programme is ‘out of scope’ for 2023. That is DEFRA-speak for, ‘won’t happen’.
Tim Macpherson of the UK Bluefin Tuna Association is furious. He says: “In anticipation of a licensed fishery, if not next year, then in future years, we are expecting at least a very limited pilot program.
“It would probably involve the same skippers who are all geared up and have clients coming to Cornwall to fish with them. They’ve started taking bookings for next year and to be told, ‘You’re not doing it’, it’s very, very disappointing.”
Tuna fishing skipper Steve Porter, who runs True Blue Charters, has been involved in the CHART programme for two years. He fears that DEFRA ditching CHART will lead to an illegal recreational fishery. “That’s what we’ve already seen this year,” he says.
Steve is facing uncertainty over what to do about next year’s tuna fishing bookings: “What are we to do?” he asks. “Are we to say no to these bookings because we don’t know what’s in place or do we accept the bookings knowing that there’s a possibility that we may not be able to take them next year?”
He says the anglers that book to go bluefin tuna fishing next year will book accommodation, take the time off work, and incur lots of expense. He says: “It’s really vital that there is some way that we can target these bluefin next year, whether that be through a CHART program or a licensed recreational fishery.”
Steve says that unscrupulous charter boats have already been fishing for bluefin tuna without a licence and without effective policing enforcement. He says: “The likelihood is that the number of anglers wanting to target bluefin illegally will increase. Who could blame them? These are magnificent fish. We’ve got a world class fishery here.”
All is not lost yet. The UK Bluefin Tuna Association says that its conversations with DEFRA over the last five months focused on the possibility of replacing the CHART programme with a recreational fishery.
Tim says that the Angling Trust and the association have been working with the government and DEFRA for four years on a lasting framework for bluefun tuna sportfishing. He says: “They’ve been dangling this recreational fishery in front of us for two years, ever since we got the quota from ICCAT [International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna, which sets catch limits on tuna for 52 member states].”
He says some DEFRA officials were keen for this to happen. However, DEFRA maintains that there are still legislative obstacles to overcome in order for it to run a licensing scheme.
Political pundit Nigel Farage is a bluefin enthusiast. He says: “These are big fish. It’s dangerous. Man overboard is a very real possibility when you’ve got one of these fish on. You’ve got to know what you’re doing. You’ve got to have the right equipment.”
Nigel says that the 25 boats in the CHART programme in England are already top class. He says: “They have spent the money. All of them have the right rods, the right reels, the right harnesses, the right chairs, and everything to make it safe and correct for the angler.”
He says that, as the anglers have done their bit, it would be “an absolute betrayal” by DEFRA of those who have worked with the CHART programme to date. He says: “This needs to continue. It really does. And I’m going to give all the support and all the lobbying that I can.”
The association says that, while DEFRA is planning to end sportfishing, its officials are trying to progress their plans for a commercial bluefin tuna fishery. Tim says: “We have no objection to a commercial fishery in principle, but we know that the Cornish fishing fleets are not prepared for catching tuna.”
Nigel supports the idea of a commercial fishery. He says: “I have got no problem with local West Country fishermen being allowed a couple of fish a month, four or five months a year. It would make zero difference to the amount of stock and would make commercial fishing a lot more realistic for many who are struggling.”
However, he claims that DEFRA is prioritising the commercial fishery and ignoring the economic benefits of recreational fishing to coastal communities.
The Angling Trust has a meeting scheduled for this with the new fisheries minister Mark Spencer and will be fighting for a U-turn.
Tim says the association has said in a letter and will say to the minister in the meeting that the recreational fishery is already open and functioning.
He says: “Do you want an illegal fishery operating in the in UK waters that you cannot manage? There’s no enforcement available in Cornwall or Devon. There are no resources available for enforcement.”
As with many aspects of government, the loss of CHART may be due to a funding issue.
Tim says that DEFRA had asked him to look into other funding sources to create what he calls ‘CHART Lite’. He says if there is a CHART program next year alternative sources of funding are needed. He says: “DEFRA officials are talking about something called ‘CHART lite’. If a CHART programme goes ahead, it means that, instead of 25 boats, there will be probably five, maybe even three.
“An awful lot of people who’ve spent a lot of money investing in gear and have got a lot of clients waiting to go tuna fishing next year where won’t be able to do it.”
The CHART bluefin tuna tagging programme only happened after many years of anglers battling DEFRA officials. In the two years of English CHART programmes, skippers, crews, and anglers have tagged more than 1,800 fish. They are determined not to lose this opportunity to follow their passion of landing the most magnificent big game fish in the UK.
Steve says there is nothing like catching bluefin tuna. He says: “The adrenalin starts pumping and your heart beats faster. Then when that rod is taken from the gunnel, and you’re put into a harness and you’re strapped to it and you feel the full power of that fish. It really is the most amazing experience. There is no other fish I’ve I ever caught in the UK, or all around the world, that can come close to the power of a bluefin tuna.”
Nigel calls it “terrific sport fishing”. He recalls a day he had in 2021 with his brother and nephew out from Megavissey.
They had nine bluefin tuna at their boat in one day. He says: “I’ve spent £10,000s going all over the world since the late 1980s. I’ve never had a better day’s fishing in my life.”