Angling groups and recreational tuna specialists Bluefin Tuna UK are challenging politicians across Europe to embrace the development of a live release recreational tuna fishery or face an increase in illegal commercial fishing as bluefin tuna hits record prices in the Japanese fish market with the sale of a $3.1 million fish at the annual New Year’s Day auction.

Even at the more realistic prices of £2k to £3k a carcass away from Tokyo’s media event, the value of these iconic fish still provides a great attraction for illegal activity. The Angling Trust has warned that the increasing numbers of giant bluefin tuna arriving in Northern European waters in the last three years are bound to attract the attention of the types of criminal gangs that were recently discovered by Europol operating in Spain, France, Italy and Malta. Late last year, Spanish police made 79 arrests breaking a network responsible for causing food poisoning from badly processed and illegally caught Mediterranean tuna. The gangs were estimated to be handling as much as 2,800 tonnes of tuna a year netting themselves around Eur 12.5 million of illegal profits annually.

Over the last three years, huge Atlantic bluefin tuna have appeared late each summer in UK waters. The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT) began a global stock recovery program in 2007 which has seen numbers recover sharply from the danger levels of 10 years ago.

From Cornwall and Wales to the Outer Hebrides, tuna are now present in significant numbers and many have been inadvertently caught and safely released by anglers out fishing for sharks. Despite this, Britain has no share in the EU quota, a small proportion of which is reserved for recreational fishing by France, Spain and Italy. Once Britain leaves the EU anglers are calling on the UK government to apply to ICCAT for part of the ‘reserve’ quota held for new ‘artisanal’ fishery opportunities.

The Angling Trust and Bluefin Tuna UK are meeting with UK Fisheries Minister George Eustice later this month to present the case for a British tuna quota to be allocated to a specially licensed catch and release, recreational fishery operating alongside accredited scientific tagging programmes of the sort already run in Scandinavia by WWF.

Martin Salter, Chief Policy Advisor of the Angling Trust, said: “Until the 1950s the UK had a thriving and highly valuable recreational bluefin tuna fishery but overfishing of both herring and tuna saw stocks collapse and British big game anglers resorted to spending thousands of pounds pursuing these magnificent fish overseas. We now now have an opportunity to make a unique response to the return of these iconic fish. By adopting our radical, live-release fishery proposal, with an accompanying scientific research program, we can assist conservation and change the way other nations view and manage their Atlantic bluefin tuna.

“The alternative to having anglers out on the water as stakeholders in the fishery will be an inevitable rise in criminality and chaos driven by profit and greed. These magnificent fish are worth far more alive than dead. They are a major natural capital asset to the UK with a recent study in Canada showing that the recreational bluefin tuna fishery was worth in the order of six times per tonne that of the commercial fishery.”

Anglers have also hit back hard at a recently published report that seeks to undermine their campaign to establish a properly regulated, science-based, live-release UK tuna fishery.

The report, co-authored by plankton specialist Dr Richard Kirby, ‘Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillations drive the basin-scale distribution of Atlantic bluefin tuna’ argues that the phenomenon of sea temperature variations is largely responsible for the shift in the range of bluefin tuna, and that it will potentially also create negative conditions for the spawning in the Mediterranean influencing their abundance in future years. He then concludes that there is no case for a UK catch and release recreational fishery whilst ignoring the impacts of commercial exploitation.

Steve Murphy, Director of Bluefin Tuna UK, said: “Whilst we welcome any contribution to our understanding of Atlantic bluefin, we have reservations about some of the conclusions leapt to in the report. The analysis completely ignores the role played by commercial overfishing in the stock collapse in the latter half of the 20th century and the stock recovery since 2011 in response to drastic cuts in the level of overfishing.

  “Dr Kirby suggests that the emergence of bluefin in these areas may be solely down to a shift of stocks from the South West Atlantic to the North East. However, he offers no analysis of the South Western stock and ignores comprehensive studies showing a recovery in the Eastern Atlantic stock in its own right, a recovery that has been acknowledged by serious conservation bodies such as the WWF. The fact is that the tuna are here and we need more data to increase our knowledge about these incredible predators.”

David Mitchell, Head of Marine at the Angling Trust added: “Our proposal for a ‘world-leading’ catch and release recreational fishery working alongside marine scientists would aid the conservation of bluefin tuna through angling’s unique ability to catch fish for scientific purposes and return them unharmed. Because the mortality rates for properly managed recreational fisheries have been shown to be as low as 3.6% – far from the ’17-40%’ claimed by Dr Kirby – only a tiny fraction (20 tonnes) of the already agreed global quota of 38,000 tonnes would be needed to deliver a sustainable and highly valuable recreational fishery for the UK.”


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