blue fin tuna from cornwall

Editors intro:

It’s not very often a capture occurs in British waters that makes you sit up and really take notice. A few charter boats have done some pretty groundbreaking stuff over the past couple of years with some impressive results, though typically this has been an extreme number of miles off shore that the cost of fuel alone could see you jetting off on a fishing holiday to any number of foreign climes. Thus, the results aren’t that impactful on the general outlook of British sea angling for the average angler.

This though, is a demonstration of what is possible within easy distance off shore in one of the smaller class of personal boats, solo! To have done what John Locker did, on his own, a minimal distance off-shore, in UK waters, and to repeat the effort twice in a day is truly ground breaking. To have caught it all on video is simply exceptional.

It’s no secret now, and indeed the cover image to this feature alone is a dead giveaway, that John landed two very good sized bluefin tuna off the coast of Cornwall. Nothing ground breaking when just put that way, a fair few catches have happened from larger boats, with teams of people in recent years after all. We do, however, believe John is the first to have achieved the feat not just once, but twice in a day on such a small boat (16ft to be exact), on his own whilst recording the events too.

It’s crucially important to note at this point that the MMO (Marine Management Organisation) interpret the EU legislation on the targeting of bluefin tuna recreationally (even on a catch and release basis) to be outlawed. That is to say that you cannot outright target the species. It’s absolutely clear that any fish caught as by-catch fishing recreationally should be returned. The interpretation is based on the fact that recreational catches must be offset from the quotas assigned to a member state of the EU and, as it stands, the UK does not have a quota from which to assign anything to the recreational sector.

All of this, may of course change. There are a number of existing campaigns, supported by the Angling Trust amongst other bodies, that call for a recreational fishery for bluefin tuna in UK waters. It may not even prove necessary for the UK to be granted a quota for this to happen, as a small global quota is retained by the ICCAT (The international commission for the conservation of Atlantic tunas). There are a number of positive conservation arguments in establishing a profitable recreational fishery for this species over simply ignoring them. Most notably, establishing a sound economy around returning these fish alive should lead to more protection over them and a counter argument to exploiting them for profit through killing them.

As it stands, a small number of people signed up through a research tagging programme (THUNNUS) are entitled to target, tag and release them. We wouldn’t encourage anyone to go out specifically targeting this species outside of this tagging programme under current legislation, though with a noted increase of by-catch from those seeking large shark and with a possible change in law down the line, the questions John answers later in this piece could prove invaluable to both the angler and the fishes welfare. The immediate advice if you do catch one as by-catch is not to boat it, instead releasing it at the side of the boat. If by some miracle you land one off the shore, every effort should be made to release without removing from the water. Far more likely is you’ll be waving goodbye to a whole spool of line before you can say “This ain’t a Pollack”.

For now, over to John, who takes us through his sensational day before answering all of your questions posed via his Youtube channel.

The capture:

I headed out early in the morning to arrive at my mark just after first light, hoping to catch wind and tide together to make for a smooth drift whilst targeting Porbeagle sharks with a video in mind for my channel.

As per the norm, I feathered up some fresh mackerel on the way out. It doesn’t ever really matter what the target is, fresh bait is always going to be best. I was soon cutting one into a flapper for a hook bait, running the bait out as I set up ready for a days fishing.

As there had been some sightings and hook-ups of big porgies in that area the previous week I had brought my heavy shark setup to put me in with a better chance of landing a fish should I hook it. There’s a lot of fun to be had fishing relatively light for shark, but it’s also key to get them in quick to they have the best chance of recovery, so being alone it was best to stick to a heavier set up.

I had just cleared the deck and was about to set the chum bag over the side when the ratchet tore off with a screaming run! This looked to be a great start, with an unexpected take before even getting the chum going! I picked up the rod out of the holder and gently increased the drag. Feeling the increased pressure, the fish just seemed to pick up speed and I quickly knew that this wasn’t any normal fish!

By the time the fish had reached 250 yards (not long!) and showed no sign of slowing down I knew this had to be a tuna. I started the engine and began turning the boat to follow the fish and hopefully prevent myself from being spooled. By around 400 yards I had managed to keep pace with the fish and started to regain a little line onto the reel. If the tackle held, this was going to be a real battle of attrition.

The next 2 hours were pretty much a game of give and take. I would gain line back and the fish would take it back seemingly at will, undeterred by any levels of drag or rod pressure I could exert. I did have a couple of heart in mouth moments when the fish ran around fishing gear markers but, I managed to manoeuvre the boat around them freeing the line, all the while playing the fish. It would have been simpler with someone with me, who could have kept an eye on such things and dealt with the boat manoeuvres. Many factors were complicated by being alone and I constantly had to multi task.

As I got the fish to the boat I got a clean gaff hold in the fishes lip and removed the hook and trace. I then ran the boat ahead forcing water over the fishes gills and reviving the fish until it showed it was ready to swim away. It was such an incredible mix of emotions fighting the fish and then seeing it up close like that, but it was absolute elation to watch the fish power away again! Everything after that is pretty much a blur!

It didn’t really fully sink in, even with landing a second that day, until I had edited and uploaded the video and seen the comments flying back my way. Amongst all of the congratulations and “Where did you catch it” comments were some really good questions, so mindful they may help people in the future, particularly if campaigns for a recreational tuna fishery prove successful, I’ve taken the time to answer them all here in more detail than I’ve been able to via Youtube or Facebook.

Questions from viewers of the video:

How did you catch them?

I was targeting Porbeagle sharks (and any other large shark in the area) along the edge of a reef system and accidentally hooked them when they intercepted my mackerel flapper baits. I can only assume that they were so fired up on the feed that they didn’t mind taking a dead bait which wouldn’t be the standard method of choice if you were actively targeting the species.

What reel/tackle did you use and did you feel it was adequate?

I used my heavy sharking setup, which consists of a Shimano Tiagra 30w and Shimano standup stick. Although I landed the fish, I have since learned from more experienced tuna fishermen, and agree, that this reel is very small for tuna. A larger reel, for example an 80w, would have been better. A larger reel allows you to put more pressure on the fish cutting down the fight time and allowing a safe release sooner. I had 80lb J-Braid and 200lb rubbing leader to a wire bite trace ending in a 12/0 Cox and Rawle Mutsu Circle hook. This setup is intended for large porbeagles or Thresher sharks and is what I would consider mid range for this. As to the adequate question, I guess it was, if not ideal! These tuna can get far bigger too and I’d have almost certainly have been found wanting then.

Did you not consider taking the fish home?

Anyone who knows me or the fishing blog that my family and I make will know that I am an active promoter of conservation and catch and release – with all of the fish I can. Morally I could not have brought myself to kill such an incredible creature, which in my opinion deserves to be in the ocean. Being able to experience them up close was an absolute privilege and one that I hope that by having returned the fish, others will likewise get the chance to experience. Further to that, at this current moment the UK has no quota for bluefin tuna so the MMO interpret that we can not legally retain the species. There’s surely far more money in catching them multiple times than killing them. A successful recreational tuna fishery for Cornwall could bring massive sums in to the local communities.

Is this the best thing you have ever caught?

I have been incredibly lucky in my lifetime, catching some very memorable fish. Many will know I hold the UK bass record, which is always going to be near the top, but the experience of hooking and “landing” tuna of that size, completely on my own, in my own 16ft boat and in home waters too, all on rigs and knots I made myself is just phenomenal. Second only to the absolute elation of watching them both swim away afterwards.

Was what you did dangerous?

Any fishing has an element of danger involved as you are near water, hooks, knives etc. It is all about preparing yourself properly and mitigating the risks. I often fish alone, on the rocks or on a small boat out at sea. That carries its own risks, I wear a lifejacket (PFD) and have a recovery ladder at the stern of the boat. I have safety equipment and a first aid box aboard my boat. When I am transiting anywhere I always wear an engine kill cord. in this case I could not as I needed to move around the deck fighting the fish but I do have a safety lanyard that attaches me to the boat. Watching the video back, I do make a very cringeworthy error. I take wraps of the leader around an ungloved hand! I have no excuse for this and really is not something to be done, I was simply caught up in the excitement and regret taking that risk. I dread to think what could have happened if that tuna ran again at that point. If there is anyone that is unsure about manning their boats alone there are several very good RYA small boat courses you can take to help build your skillset and confidence.

Can I (anyone) go and catch a bluefin tuna?

It is my understanding that whilst the UK has no quota for bluefin tuna it is illegal to go and target bluefin tuna or land them. This is certainly the advice following interpretation of the EU legislation by the MMO. There is, however, a bluefin tuna tagging scheme currently running alongside several universities working to establish a catch and release fishery here in the UK. This would be incredible in my opinion. Not only would it mean that we could protect these fish from commercial pressure from foreign boats in UK waters, but legally fish for these incredible fish responsibly and sustainably. The tourism and charters would bring a very valuable income stream to small seaside towns in the UK who’s fishing industries have suffered dramatically over the past decades.
What we don’t want is an over exploitation of the species. Whilst numbers appear abundant at the moment, there is a suggestion that a temporary shift in currents are simply bringing a greater distribution of the shoals north and that the overall biomass of tuna in the Atlantic has not increased as much as evidence on our shores suggests. So we should approach it with just caution and continue to focus heavily on conservation.

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