Pilot scheme for Irish bluefin tuna angling

  5th February 2019

There was promising news recently for recreational sea anglers and fisheries scientists alike (5th February 2019) as Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Michael Creed T.D., announced that he has secured approval at EU and international level for the introduction of a science-based catch, tag and release fishery for bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus) for recreational Irish anglers. This scheme will complement the work on satellite tagging of bluefin that is currently being undertaken by the Marine Institute. The developments have been widely welcomed within the angling community across the country.

Minister Creed said that “As part of the negotiations on the new international management plan for bluefin tuna in the east Atlantic, Ireland was able to secure agreement that will allow countries like Ireland, that do not have a commercial bluefin tuna quota, to operate a catch-tag-release fishery for gathering scientific data.” This new management plan was adopted at the 2018 International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) Annual Meeting, held back in November.

Currently, despite their presence, in numbers, off our southern, western and northern coasts, Ireland has no commercial quota for bluefin tuna, even though other EU Member States such as France, Spain and Italy do have quotas for the species. This allows such nations (who hold some 98% off all bluefin quotas) to target and land bluefin, even from Irish waters. Previously, under ICCAT rules, Ireland’s lack of commercial quota does not allow the deliberate targeting of the species, even on a catch & release (C&R) basis for angling – until now.

Historically, especially in the 1930s and 40s, an extremely lucrative and exclusive bluefin rod and line fishery existed off England’s northeast coast at Scarborough. This was not a C&R fishery, though, and stocks declined hugely due to overfishing. Recent data indicates that bluefin stocks have recovered in recent years, following a near-total stock collapse in the 1960s and 70s. In 2007, after decades of commercial overfishing, ICCAT introduced much-reduced quotas and increased enforcement to help stocks recover.

Scarborough tunny fishing
A man standing next to a 756lb bluefin caught on rod and line in Scarborough, England in 1934. The so-called ‘tunny’ fishery soon collapsed through overharvesting and overfishing

Minister Creed continued “My Department is currently working with the Marine Institute and the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority (SFPA) on a pilot project that will allow up to 15 angling vessels with trained tagging operators to target bluefin tuna in 2019. The aim of the project is to build on work undertaken to date and to increase our knowledge of the behaviour and abundance of bluefin tuna in the waters off the Irish coast.  It will also provide an ancillary benefit in that it will support angling tourism in peripheral coastal communities, including in particular Donegal.”

A recent Canadian study (read here ) found that their bluefin tuna fishery could be up to six times more valuable if fish are caught and released instead of being landed for food consumption, given that it generates revenue for the tackle trade, charter skippers, accommodation suppliers and local economies in general. Angling skippers such as the internationally renowned Adrian Molloy, based in Donegal, who (read here) pioneered catch & release angling for tuna in Irish waters, has long-maintained that Irish rural communities would benefit hugely from development of C&R bluefin fisheries whilst at the same time assisting the scientific community on learning more about this incredible fish.

Tagging to date

In the early 2000s, bluefin became more visible in the waters around Ireland. Sightings subsequently abated as the stock declined in the Atlantic. In 2014 they began to reappear in large numbers as the stock recovered. There are no scientific population estimates, but much anecdotal information on increased sightings and interactions with commercial fisheries. Similar reports of increased tuna numbers are coming from UK, Norwegian and Danish waters for the 2016 to 2018 period.

Ireland commenced a new bluefin tagging programme in 2016 when 9 fish were tagged. This programme continued in 2017 with North American partners (Stanford University US and Acadia University NS, Canada) and a new collaborator in Queens University, Belfast. This tagging work, in conjunction with ICCAT, continued in 2018 when 24 fish were tagged with satellite tags and 4 with accelerometer tags, to help map their distribution and habitat use.

The results from the bluefin satellite tags from the Irish programme (2016 to 2018) are currently being analysed by the Marine Institute and partners.  Initial indications show that tuna tagged off Donegal in October could migrate into the mid-Atlantic, Bay of Biscay and Mediterranean and return to the waters off Donegal Bay.

Hope for a recreational UK tuna fishery?

Off the back of this development, there is now even greater hope in the UK – which, like Sweden or Denmark, does also not hold a commercial bluefin quota – that a similar, expanded pilot tagging scheme will be introduced there, where it is being mainly campaigned for by the Bluefin Tuna UK group. Steven Murphy, director of Bluefin Tuna UK, maintains that there is “a tremendous opportunity here to harness the return of tuna for not only significant economic benefits, but also in setting a new benchmark for the sustainable management of a recovering species”. Many anglers out there agree with these sentiments.

Minister Creed added “Our fishing industry has expressed concerns about the increasing numbers of bluefin tuna in the Irish 200 miles zone and this programme will allow us to understand more about bluefin – their habitat, migration patterns and concentration in waters around Ireland.”

The exact details of the recreational angling-led pilot tagging scheme will be developed over the coming period in consultation with the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment (DCCAE), which is responsible for angling.