Sport fishing for tuna, which Ernest Hemingway claimed offered an entry ticket “to the presence of the very elder gods”, could soon be a boom industry in Cornwall, under plans being considered by ministers.
In the week Cornwall took on the US in the space industry — with mixed results — ministers are looking to lure wealthy Americans to the county to exploit the return of bluefin tuna to UK waters after a 50-year absence.
“Sport fishing for big fish around the world is a very high-value activity,” said Tim Macpherson, of the UK Bluefin Tuna association. “We can bring quite a substantial fishery into one of the most deprived areas of the UK.”
Mark Spencer, fisheries minister, is considering creating a licensed recreational fishery, which would require a legal change. “You’d get a lot of loaded Americans over,” said one senior government figure.
Many people are willing to pay big bucks to follow in the footsteps of Hemingway, who wrote about epic struggles between man and tuna, which typically weigh up to 250kg.
“If you land a big tuna after a six-hour fight, fight him man against fish until your muscles are nauseated with the unceasing strain, and finally bring him up alongside the boat, green-blue and silver in the lazy ocean, you will be purified and will be able to enter unabashed into the presence of the very elder gods, and they will make you welcome,” he wrote in 1922.
Cornwall, in the far south-western reaches of the UK, is already acquiring something of a glamorous status, with expensive homes acquired by wealthy Londoners sitting alongside areas of severe poverty.
In 2021 the county hosted a G7 summit, with world leaders treated to a barbecue on the golden sands of Carbis Bay, and this month Newquay airport in Cornwall hosted a major — but abortive — satellite launch.
The rocket carrying the satellites into orbit suffered an “anomaly”. Shares in Virgin Orbit fell sharply after the failure of Britain’s historic attempt to launch the first commercial satellites from western Europe.
A limited number of vessels in the UK have been allowed to take anglers out during the past two years to catch, release and tag bluefin tuna, under a scientific research scheme.
More than 1,000 fish were caught and released in 2022. Fish are not boarded, but towed alongside the boat before being freed.
Spencer is considering a big expansion of the recreational fishing sector, once the scientific data has been analysed and if he is assured the tuna stocks are being given sufficient protection.
“The return of Atlantic blue fin tuna to UK waters is an exciting opportunity which could benefit our fishing communities and tourism industry,” Spencer told the Financial Times.
The UK has been given a quota of 63 tonnes of blue fin tuna under an international conservation agreement. Spencer has been asked by the fishing industry to allow the development of recreational tuna fishing and a small scale commercial fishery.
Steve Porter, captain of Falmouth-based boat True Blue, which runs tuna fishing trips under the tagging programme, said there was “a massive market”.
He added: “People pay me £1,200 a day to go and catch tuna. They will perhaps stay in a hotel, go to a pub, eat in the restaurant. The benefit to the local economy is immense and the fish is still in the water.”
These anglers are “quite wealthy — people who might go shooting,” added Porter. He said catching tuna “takes us back to primeval cavemen times — something in our bodies wants us to have this fight against this animal”.
Stuart Singleton-White, head of campaigns at the Angling Trust, said the fishery had potential to bring experienced anglers “from all over the world” to Cornwall, Devon and further up the west coast.
The Marine Conservation Society warned, however, that “any fishery for this species must be carefully monitored and managed” as “we don’t yet have confidence that the [bluefin tuna] stock is in a healthy enough state to withstand high levels of fishing pressure”.
Hugo Tagholm, executive director for conservation group Oceana in the UK, said the group “would like to see further replenishment of [bluefin tuna] stocks, before any recreational angling is considered which will put them under considerable stress”.
Porter attributed the return of bluefin tuna — which disappeared off the UK coast in the mid-20th century because of overfishing — to recovered sardine stocks, offering prey for the larger fish, and to warmer temperatures attributable to the movement of the Gulf Stream. Atlantic bluefin tuna ceased to be officially classified as endangered in 2021.
Before their disappearance, big game fishing for tuna was a popular activity off Scarborough and Whitby on England’s east coast, and is said to have attracted film stars such as John Wayne and Errol Flynn.