What's The Latest on UK Atlantic Bluefin Tuna Fishing?
What’s going on with Atlantic bluefin tuna? You may have seen mentions of it popping up in recent weeks, from news pieces and social media comments to selected menus and even as oil paintings. In this article, we explain the current situation with Atlantic bluefin tuna and ask whether this previously endangered fish can be described as sustainable.
The background of Atlantic bluefin tuna in the UK
Atlantic bluefin tuna is a fast swimming, predatory species that was fished almost to extinction in the latter part of the 20th century. They have been an extremely rare sight in UK waters over the last couple of decades; however, as a result of careful international management and stringent legislation, it appears that stocks have now recovered, and the tuna have been spotted off the UK coastline – largely around the Cornwall and southern coasts – since 2014.
From 2021 onwards, the UK government began to allow commercial fishermen who caught bluefin tuna accidentally (as by-catch in trawls or ring nets) to land one fish per day per boat, and to sell these fish for human consumption.
Trial licences for Atlantic bluefin tuna
In 2023, the Marine Management Organisation (MMO) announced a limited hook and line fishery for bluefin tuna in UK waters. The licences were issued on a trial basis after two years of recreational fishing for the species on a catch and release tagging (CHART) programme.
Under the terms of this pilot, quotas are strictly limited. There are just 10 licensed boats (seven in Cornwall, two in Devon and one in Scotland), each of which is permitted to catch no more than three tuna fish on any one day. The tuna can only be caught using specialist rods and lines, with no live bait.
The trial has two objectives:
to assess the sustainability of a small-scale commercial bluefin tuna fishery, and
to evaluate the potential social and economic benefits that such a fishery could bring to UK fishers.
The pilot fishery started on August 5th and was scheduled to finish at the end of November. As a result of poor weather conditions that have made it difficult to get boats out to sea, this deadline has been extended, and the pilot will now close on December 31st. This provides an extended window for data collection. The Fishing Daily descibes the trial as “a pivotal phase in the UK’s exploration of sustainable and economically viable fishing practices”.
Based on the results of the pilot, The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) and the government will decide whether this commercial fishery will be allowed to continue.
2024 legislation for recreational fishing
Defra has now confirmed that it will introduce legislation in spring 2024 to establish permitting regimes for the recreational targeting of Atlantic bluefin tuna, giving anglers access to a catch-and-release fishery in English waters.
Data from this fishery will be used to improve monitoring of bluefin tuna populations and ensure that the species is managed in a sustainable way, while also helping to attract more tourists to coastal communities.
Fisheries Minister Mark Spencer said, “This announcement has been made possible following the UK’s exit from the EU and follows overwhelming support for our proposal across the fishing industry and environmental groups. It will bring social and economic benefits to the fishing industry and coastal communities, whilst ensuring the ongoing sustainable management of Atlantic bluefin tuna.”
However, the UK Bluefin Tuna Association has expressed concerns about the finer details of the proposal, noting that Defra is requiring no charge for the licence, no requirement for new entrants to demonstrate any qualifying skill level or knowledge, and no mandated training, and that critical standards of welfare and safety will only be met as part of a voluntary code of conduct. Speaking on behalf of the UKBFTA, the PBA, and the Angling Trust, Stuart Singleton-White said, “What they propose […] risks doing immense damage to the reputation gained through CHART of a well-managed, high welfare catch and release fishery, and the credibility of those taking part. We are determined to not let this happen and will continue to work with Defra to ensure the clear views of stakeholders and all those who responded to the consultation are incorporated into the final fishery design.”
Is Atlantic bluefin tuna sustainable?
The short answer is, it’s too early to tell.
Fisherman and Chairman of the South West Handline Fisherman's Association Andrew Pascoe has been involved in developing the fishery, and told the BBC this week, "This fishery is probably the most regulated fishery in the UK. We can't come in from sea without calling in first that we have got one on board, and the MMO officers are on the quay when we get back to measure the fish and make sure everything is above board. It is a highly sustainable fishery. There is no way we can damage stocks of bluefin tuna when there are so many in our waters."
It's also worth considering that tuna are top-line predators and that excessive numbers can lead to reduced stocks of smaller fish further down the food chain – a challenge for small-scale traditional fisheries that rely on these fish.
On the other hand, large predators like tuna are easily over-fished, and the Atlantic bluefin tuna has only recently recovered in numbers after being fished almost to the point of extinction.
In correspondence with The Sustainable Restaurant Association, the Cornwall Good Seafood Guide said it’s too early to comment on the sustainability of the tuna and that more research is needed. Matt Slater, Marine Conservation Officer for Cornwall Wildlife Trust, said, “The bluefin tuna fishery is, as you know, very new. We want to ensure we have time to apply our methodology fairly and consider all available evidence before we give advice on this new fishery.”
“I believe that the sustainability of the tuna is still up for debate as it’s still in the early days,” said Ivan Tisdall-Downes of Native restaurant in London. “There are worrying signs that the government believe that this may be the saviour of the fishing industry. Worldwide, it is common knowledge that tuna sustainability is a huge cause for concern, and so it is important that correct fishing methods are implemented and governed extremely strictly. If we are going to continue to use this amazing fish, it needs to be done in a regenerative way.”
Learn more about sustainable sourcing of seafood through our #EatForTomorrow campaign on our Instagram and LinkedIn channels.
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