Bluefin tuna, a highly sought-after fish, has returned to British waters, bringing with it the return of fishing boats. This fish is considered a must-catch by many.
Once a plentiful apex predator in British waters, the bluefin tuna is now a highly sought-after fish in Japan, with prices reaching over £2 million for a single catch. These warm-blooded aquatic hunters, weighing more than a fully grown male polar bear, were decimated in the 1960s due to overfishing and are now on the brink of extinction in the eastern Atlantic.
Since 2014, there has been a significant increase in the number of migratory fish off the coast of south-west England. This is due to stricter fishing quotas in the eastern Atlantic, which aim to protect the species. The reason for their return and the recovery of populations in the Mediterranean, where they are mainly caught, is still unknown. However, the bluefin tuna is no longer considered an endangered species in the UK and can now be spotted hunting near the shore by wildlife photographers. As a result, there is now a focus on finding sustainable ways to catch the fish without depleting its population in British waters once again.
In 2023, the UK completed its initial commercial bluefin fishing season in over six decades. Currently, a three-year experiment of tagging and releasing fish to observe the effects of recreational fishing is ending. Scientists are cautiously optimistic about the “remarkable” recovery of the bluefin tuna, offering hope for both the fish and the coastal communities that previously depended on it.
As a young person, it was rare to hear of a bluefin tuna being caught by a commercial fishing fleet. However, nowadays, they are abundant in the area. Our waters are filled with thousands upon thousands of them. We have a plentiful supply of anchovies, sardines, mackerel, and herring, which the tuna feed on. Chris Gill, the captain of the Aquila in Mevagissey, Cornwall, has been involved in the tag-and-release program where the fish are tagged and released back into the ocean, as well as the first commercial fishing season.
The program permitted ten vessels to capture 39 metric tons, equaling several hundred fish.
The government plans to implement a catch-and-release fishing program in 2024. This decision follows a successful tagging program aimed at gaining a better understanding of these creatures in preparation for a regulated industry. This will give more anglers the opportunity to catch large fish in British waters, something that hasn’t been possible for generations.
Over the span of the program, the Guardian reports that over 3,000 bluefin tuna were marked during 1,647 fishing expeditions from 2021 to 2023. Based on recent data, a socioeconomic analysis of the initiative shows it generated a £2.6m economic growth during the bluefin fishing season, which takes place from mid-August to mid-December. Gill states that the program has provided fishermen an opportunity to catch a once-in-a-lifetime fish, while also laying the groundwork for a sustainable industry in the future.
“I accompanied a father and his 11-year-old twins on a fishing trip where they caught bluefin tuna. Each of the twins caught a 320-pound fish. On another trip, a 76-year-old with lung cancer joined us in pursuit of a bucket-list fish,” he reports.
Environmental organizations are urging the government to proceed cautiously. Dr. Kenneth Bodles, head of fisheries and aquaculture at the Marine Conservation Society, states that the success of the tag-and-release program is proof that following advice from scientists, recreational anglers, skippers, and conservationists can result in the return of species. He emphasizes the importance of careful management and ongoing monitoring to maintain the delicate balance of our seas and protect this iconic species as we witness the resurgence of bluefin tuna in the UK.
The Chart program, which involves catching and releasing fish, has received praise from environmental organizations. However, the reintroduction of commercial fishing has faced criticism from some individuals. In particular, Rick Stein’s Padstow restaurant drew backlash from wildlife activists when a video was shared of a fish caught under the program being prepared and served with guacamole and soy dressing. It is still undecided how the UK’s bluefin tuna quota will be utilized for the commercial program in 2024, but it is likely that British tuna will continue to be offered on menus.
Other chefs have also welcomed the return of the fish, not just Stein. In Japan, prices are typically high due to the tradition of auctioning off the first fish of the season, but according to Gill, prices for British bluefin tuna at high-end restaurants ranged from £4 to £17 per kilogram last year. The fish was delivered in a transit van. Freezing the fish is a challenge as it needs to reach a temperature of -60C to maintain its prized deep red color. For those purchasing locally caught Cornish bluefin from a fishmonger, a steak can cost anywhere from £20-£50.
The renowned chef and restaurant owner, Mike Robinson, who is a partner at Harwood Arms in Fulham, recently decided to add Cornish bluefin tuna to his menu after thoroughly evaluating its sustainability qualifications. He purchased the fish from Gill, who caught it through the designated program.
He described the tuna as “exquisite”.
“We utilized all of it. The fish weighed 100kg after being gutted. It was an extremely large fish. To give some context, they can reach sizes of 500kg or more. The only way they can reach such sizes is if they have enough food, so it’s good news that they are able to find it,” he explains, mentioning that he has gone out to sea to observe schools of tuna.
Robinson expressed concerns about fishing boats traveling to the western coast of Ireland and waiting in international waters, stating that the most crucial aspect is to prevent exploitation. He acknowledged the difficulty of regulating this situation and hopes that this resource will not be overused by individuals beyond their jurisdiction.
Find more age of extinction coverage here, and follow biodiversity reporters Phoebe Weston and Patrick Greenfield on X for all the latest news and features