Lockdown fishing in the UK: Big bluefin are back!

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Martin Salter lobbying UK fisheries minister George Eustice for a new catch and release tuna fishery.

GREETINGS from ‘Plague Island’, formerly known as Great Britain. In my humble opinion there’s not much to feel great about at the moment living in a country that boasts one of the worst Coronavirus death rates in the world despite having universal health care. At some point, there will be an inquiry into how our government handled the worst health pandemic since the Spanish Flu of 1918 but it has certainly cost us dear.

Our economy was in trouble before the virus struck and paying down the eye watering debt accrued during this crisis, with over 30 per cent of the workforce furloughed, is going to be long and painful. We read with envy of contrasting approaches of the government’s of Australia and New Zealand compared to the shambles we are experiencing over here with over 100,000 lives lost and our hospital’s overwhelmed. A mere year after the crisis hit and a full eleven months behind you guys, our ministers finally get around to closing our borders and introducing traveller quarantine measures. It’s so bad you really couldn’t make it up.

On the plus side we are still blessed with some pretty damn good scientists and the Oxford University/Astrazeneca vaccine has given us a head start in immunising those of us still left alive. So that’s the first of three reasons to be cheerful in these dark times.

It’s been four years since I was last in your country enjoying some champagne fishing at Jervis Bay courtesy of local expert Ian Osterloh and catching trophy kingies with my old mates Phil Bolton and former Fisho editor Jim Harnwell. The Grand Plan was to return this year to catch up with friends, hook up on some more big fishes and take in a couple of Ashes Tests. Whether that’s still a realistic ambition remains to be seen but I live in hope.

Fishing through COVID
The attempts to gently scale back my campaigning role with the Angling Trust - the UK’s peak recreational fishing body - have been put on hold during the last year as we have had to navigate our sport through three national lockdowns and goodness knows how many regional restrictions, regulations and accompanying government guidance that was at times contradictory and incoherent. There were ministers to be lobbied, government agencies to be briefed and thousands of confused anglers to be kept informed and encouraged. We went from a full lockdown (or house arrest) in March and April of last year to an easing of restrictions in May when angling became one of the first sports to resume thanks to the Angling Trust’s highly praised When We Fish Again Campaign.

We even managed to get night fishing allowed while camping was still banned and within two weeks competition fishing was back on and charter boat fishing a week or so later. With so many other sports still restricted there has been a huge boost to the numbers of people going fishing again with something like a 20 per cent increase in licence sales. Come the autumn and the infection rates started to climb and a second lockdown was imposed. Some effective representations from ourselves saw angling permitted although organised competitions were no longer permissible. The arrival of the new variant virus coupled with the ludicrous decision to allow social mixing over Christmas saw a massive spike in both hospitalisations and deaths triggering the current, third national lockdown. Although not quite as restrictive as the first there is very little pleasure to be had for most people outside of the home save for going for a walk or cycle ride with a mate and perhaps grabbing a coffee on the way back. No pubs, restaurants or cafes are open and all sporting events are either cancelled or taking place behind closed doors. Even the golf courses are shut. However, once again we managed to persuade the powers that be that local fishing as a form of ‘exercise’ could be allowed to continue with one other person providing social distancing is maintained.

It’s been a hell of thing but still being able to fish is keeping a couple of million people safe and sane right now and is certainly a second reason to be cheerful. You can read all about our struggles here.

The tuna are back!
Now the UK is not the first place that comes to mind when planning some big game bluewater action. But as I wrote a while back, things are changing fast.

Up until the 1950s the UK had a thriving recreational bluefin tuna fishery operating mainly out of the east coast town of Scarborough, headquarters of the British Tunny Club. Sadly, the commercial overfishing of both herring and tuna saw stocks collapse and what big game anglers were left had to make do with the rather uninspiring blue shark or spend a small fortune pursuing their passion overseas.

A tagged UK Bluefin Tuna – an increasingly common sight in parts of Britain these days.

Notwithstanding the fact that climate change is by and large a bad thing there just might be some temporary upsides here in the North Atlantic. Since 2016 giant Atlantic bluefin tuna, including fish well over 700 pounds, have been spotted and caught in South West Cornwall, in the Celtic Deeps off West Wales, in North West Ireland and throughout the Western Isles of Scotland. Whether it’s due to warming and changing ocean currents, an increase in bait fish or just a consequence of a long overdue stock recovery we are yet to find out. Whatever the reason we believe that the welcome presence of bluefin in British waters – after an absence of nearly 70 years – presents a fantastic opportunity for the UK to create a scientifically and economically valuable, world class recreational live release fishery.

About the only benefit I can see coming out of the whole Brexit shambles is that by leaving the much maligned European Union Common Fisheries Policy the UK has been granted it’s own small, 49 tonne tuna quota. Now our partners at the campaign group Bluefin Tuna UK estimate that a world class recreational live release fishery would need no more than 20 tonnes of that allocation amounting to just 0.05% of the global ICCAT allocation and therefore presenting no threat to the future of these magnificent fish.

500lbs of United Kingdom bluefin!

Big game Britain?
Last week ministers confirmed our bluefin quota transfer but are yet to embrace this exciting opportunity now available to the UK to immediately establish a sustainable, quota based, licensed, and regulated recreational fishery such as we have proposed. There’s a lot of support for this from MPs representing coastal communities, many of which have been hit hard by the economic downturn and the absence of the tourist trade. We are busy building cross party support for this new fishery and remain optimistic that we will eventually get it over the line.

In these the grim times it’s a third reason to be cheerful and I’m hopeful that one day I’ll be able to repay visiting Aussies for the hospitality was so generously afforded me in my time in your country with the sort of of reel screaming action that you guys expect and crave.

Stay safe.

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