Changing Times - British Tuna

The Times are Changing- Tuna in British Waters


Just before Christmas dog-walker Matt Hynde encountered a sunfish at Sutton-on-Sea near Skegness. The fish, which can weigh 150 stone and reach 12 feet in length, was not in an aquarium, it was washed up on the beach. Commonly found in tropical waters, where it swims on its side to capture heat from the sun, the species is rare in British waters for one simple reason: the waters are way too cold. That was true of the past, but as the waters around the British Isles warm, sunfish have been recorded with growing frequency.

Exotic species such as anchovies, red mullet, sea bass, boarfish and John Dory are now caught in commercial quantities. Indeed six months ago, a shoal of some 500 Bluefin tuna, the largest recorded for over a century, appeared in the English Channel.

New species, or existing species in greater quantities, appearing around Britain’s coast will have implications for fisheries management in general and TACs (Total Allowable Catch) in particular.

Take tuna. At present a single TAC is set for the entire Eastern Atlantic (East of Longitude 45° W, which includes the waters around the UK. However, back during the reference period which led to the setting of the relative stability key, UK fishermen caught no tuna, and so hold no tuna quota. When the shoal of tuna appeared in the English Channel, it was French fishermen who caught the fish and reaped the multimillion pound reward.

If the appearance of the bluefin tuna was a blue moon event then it might matter less, but with scientists predicting an average water temperature rise of 1.8oC in the  next 50 years, it is likely that the shoaling tuna will appear more and more often. As Dr Stephen Simpson of Exeter commented in the future, ‘the waters around the UK will become more like Spain and Portugal, and so will the fish.’

The change in the shoaling habit of mackerel in the northern North Sea, attributed at least in part to sea temperatures and its impact on distribution of the copepods upon which mackerel feed, led to a protracted standoff between the EU and the fishermen of Iceland and Faroe. The outcome, much to the frustration of Scottish and Shetland fishermen, was a revision of the TAC and greater entitlement for the northern nations.

The appearance of tuna in northern waters merits a comparable revision of the existing tuna TAC. At present the TAC is defined in an all encompassing fashion, so without revision, it will simply mean more and more Spanish and Portuguese boats appearing in British waters. Given that this is a new fishery (unlike the mackerel example), a new TAC should be set for the northern latitudes.  To that end I have written to Fisheries Commissioner Karmenu Vella, presenting the evidence and asking that a northern tuna TAC be established.

If the warming of the waters is to drive more and more exotic species north, then we must be ready to embrace this opportunity. I will report back on the outcome of my discussions with Commissioner Vella. In the interim I would be grateful if any fisherman encountering tuna around the UK, could drop me a note outlining location and estimating quantity ( All evidence helps.