When I initially sat down to pen this feature, the working title was “A Day’s Fishing for Tuna off Plymouth.” Now, before the confusion sets in, Plymouth, Massachusetts, sits pretty much in the epicenter of a hugely productive New England bluefin fishery, practically within spitting distance of iconic fishing grounds such as the Stellwagen Bank and many others. But I’m not referring to the Plymouth in Massachusetts, nor any of the more than 30 US cities, towns and communities that share the name of the first Thanksgiving locale. Rather, this is referring to the original Plymouth in Devon, the historic naval city at the mouth of the River Tamar on the southwest coast of the United Kingdom.
It wasn’t that many years ago that anyone planning on fishing for tuna anywhere off the British Isles would have been dismissed as being hugely optimistic, at best. Fortunately, that is certainly not the case today. Sometime around the turn of the new millennium, reports started filtering through various angling grapevines of shoals of bluefin tuna off the coast of County Donegal and elsewhere along northwestern Ireland. Not long afterward, the first Irish tuna was landed on rod and reel. Over the following years, the number of fish sighted—and caught—off the Irish coast increased substantially, quickly reaching the point where, for several years now, Ireland has been able to boast a hugely successful sport-fishing industry, for what are often large fish. The current Irish bluefin record is 968 pounds, caught in 2001 by Capt. Adrian Molloy. He was one of the first skippers in the region to recognize the huge potential of this world-class fishery, and today, he is widely considered one of the most successful tuna captains in the Emerald Isle.
Several years after the first tuna were caught in Ireland, anglers started reporting sightings of tuna busting bait at several locations throughout the waters of the United Kingdom. Fish were reported in the vicinity of Land’s End, off the Cornish Peninsula, and others farther north in the Celtic Deeps, which is off the coast of southwest Wales. Just as had been the case in Ireland, more tuna were being seen each year. In 2015, the first Welsh tuna was caught on rod and reel aboard a private boat fishing for sharks, and was estimated to weigh between 250 and 300 pounds. But there was a problem, and a considerable problem at that: Unlike elsewhere throughout their range where tuna are caught, most notably in Europe, the UK did not have an allocated quota for the species. Therefore, targeting bluefin tuna either commercially or recreationally was illegal.
With increasing numbers of fish showing up each summer, and large schools often remaining inshore from midsummer until the new year, it was hardly surprising that anglers wanted to be able to legally fish for them; one was a passionate tuna fisherman named Steve Murphy. Along with a small group of friends, Murphy set about navigating his way through copious layers of bureaucracy to establish a legal UK sport fishery for bluefin tuna, personally devoting a considerable amount of time, effort, and money while working tirelessly with politicians, scientists, and the wider sport-fishing community. As a direct result of Murphy’s work, today recreational anglers can fish for tuna under the CHART (CatcH And Release Tagging) program.
The History of the Fishery
Of course, when the national media got hold of the stories involving bluefin tuna, predictably, their narrative firmly attributed the presence of the fish to climate change or warming sea temperatures, which in this instance is certainly not the case. Sport fishing for bluefin tuna is nothing new in the UK; in fact, throughout several decades during the previous century, fishing for tuna, also called tunny, was hugely popular off the northeast coast of England in the North Sea.
The first English bluefin tuna caught recreationally was taken off the Yorkshire coast at Whitby in August 1932; the following year, the British Tunny Club was founded in Scarborough. There, wealthy aristocrats and military officers fished for tuna using 6-foot rods made from exotic woods such as hickory, bamboo, lancewood and greenheart that were imported from around the British Empire, along with huge winchlike reels produced by companies such as Hardy. Typically based aboard a mothership, the anglers fished on small open dories that were rowed by boatmen, usually in close vicinity to commercial boats as they hauled their nets.
Once hooked up, the ensuing battles routinely lasted for several hours, with the dory being pulled several miles from the point of hookup. This is an excerpt from the Scarborough Evening News, August 1932:
“It was the biggest fish I have ever seen,” said Mr. Harold Hardy, the local angler who was with the party when discussing the battle this morning. “It put up the best fight I have ever experienced.” Mr. Hardy said the struggle lasted 7 hours and 10 minutes before the fish was got alongside. Preparations were being made to gaff it[,] the line being ‘let off’ in the meantime. “I think the man was just a little too quick in making the strike with the gaff[;] he missed and the fish gave a plunge in a sort of last dying fling. It snapped the line and was lost. It was considerably above anything which has ever been caught with rod and line. The fish was close to 16 feet long[,] and during the fight towed the boat many miles.”
One of these fishermen was Lorenzo Mitchell-Henry, who pioneered bluefin tuna fishing in Nova Scotia. Mitchell-Henry designed specialized gear and fishing techniques, which he wrote about in his book, Tunny Fishing at Home and Abroad. In 1933, Mitchell-Henry caught the then-world record, with an 851-pound bluefin he boated off Whitby.
Following World War II, bluefin were caught in the North Sea until the 1950s, by which time the vastly improved and more-numerous commercial-fishing fleet had decimated the once-huge shoals of herring and mackerel that had attracted the tuna in the first place. The last tuna reported from the North Sea was taken in 1954 by Herbert Weatherly, and the British Tunny Club held its last meeting in May 1956. With no forage to feed upon, there were no tuna—it was as simple as that.
Today, the average size of tuna caught around the British Isles is still consistently large specimens. Few fish weighing less than 100 pounds are caught, and most bluefin are estimated by length to weigh somewhere between 200 and 400 pounds. Fish weighing more than 500 pounds are encountered frequently, and bluefins estimated at well over 800 pounds, and possibly even 1,000 pounds, have been reported this year. Exact weights are not possible because this is strictly a catch, tag and release fishery.
A Day at Sea
My trip out of Plymouth in late 2022 began with a phone call from Capt. Aaron Lidstone, who runs Happy Days, one of 25 licensed boats fishing under the umbrella of the CHART program. He told me that the fishing had been excellent in recent weeks, and that he had tagged several bluefin pretty much every day he’d fished. He had just received a booking cancellation and asked if I would like to jump on to try to catch my first UK bluefin tuna. I would be the fourth member of the day’s crew; his goal was to have each of us release a tuna before we returned to port that afternoon.
On the short run from Plymouth Sound to the fishing grounds, which are surprisingly close to shore, Lidstone told us about the truly stellar fishing he and his crews had been experiencing. “There are loads of tuna down here, hundreds of them. You’re all going to catch one, just as soon as we find feeding birds,” he announced with the supreme confidence you rarely hear from a captain at the start of a day’s fishing.
After running for maybe another mile or two, we spotted a huge flock of gulls, gannets and, most important, Manx shearwaters, which are a firm indication that there are tuna in the vicinity. Minutes later, the birds started dipping and diving at the surface, plucking away at the countless silver fingers of baitfish that were clearly being attacked from beneath and driven to the surface. Then we saw the first tuna: a big, fat fish, jumping clear out of the water among the growing frenzy of birds in impressive bursts of whitewater. By now, another burst of birds, bait and tuna was taking place perhaps a quarter of a mile ahead of us, and looking back, we could see even more action. Lidstone had not been exaggerating—there were hundreds of tuna, perhaps thousands, off Plymouth.
We could not have been trolling for longer than 10 minutes before a rod buckled over, the drag screaming. We were using substantial tackle, as required by CHART, and the fish had been hooked on a spreader bar. Big bluefins have the stamina and power to fight long and hard, but swimming around with a spreader bar during the fight takes a heavy toll on the fish. Just over 10 minutes after the initial hookup, Lidstone leadered the fish while one of the crew secured it with a jaw grip. It was 74 inches in length and weighed about 300 pounds. It was extremely fat and in superb condition, so it may have been a little heavier, and of course, it may have weighed a bit less, but I couldn’t have cared either way—it was my first UK bluefin.
Within an hour, we had our second bluefin alongside Happy Days, a big fish that we calculated to weigh 450 pounds based on its measurements. Fish No. 3 was of a similar size as mine, while No. 4 was a chunky rat of a fish that taped out “only” around 250 pounds. As far as Lidstone was concerned, it was a job well done. With the weather rapidly deteriorating exactly as had been forecast, we called it a day, and Happy Days was back in her berth in Plymouth by 4 p.m.
The UK’s recreational scientific CHART program for Atlantic bluefin tuna began in 2021 as a successful pilot program of 15 vessels, which resulted in more than 700 bluefin tuna tagged and released. Charter skippers who applied and were selected to join the program were trained in catching, tagging, and data-recording techniques, enabling them to contribute to bluefin tuna research. Once trained, the skippers secured a scientific license, which allowed them to legally take paying customers fishing for tuna in UK waters.
A big part of CHART’s requirements for vessels involved in the program is ensuring that all equipment used is of a suitable standard. All captains operating under CHART are required to use heavy tackle, which includes 80-pound-class rods and reels to help ensure the healthy release of the tuna. Live-baiting is not permitted aboard CHART boats—most prefer to troll a spread of lures, and spreader bars are highly effective.
In 2022, CHART was expanded to 25 boats, and once again, it was a huge success. Between August 15 and December 11, a total of 1,090 tuna were tagged during a total of 631 fishing days. Due to a run of unseasonably bad weather, Happy Days fished a total of just 29 days for tuna, tagging 69 fish for an impressive average of 2.4 tuna per day. The smallest fish caught was calculated to weigh 120 pounds; the largest was a substantial 750 pounds. The average size was 300 pounds.
While many hope to expand the recreational-angling prospects for bluefin tuna in the United Kingdom, there is no doubt that this is an extraordinarily substantial fishery. If it’s well-managed, it should continue to provide anglers with incredible encounters for many decades with one of the sport’s most powerful gamefish.