Sea Fishing, Anglers’ Rights and the Magna Carta

Fishing Restriction Roker Beach
Sign showing the months in which fishing is banned from Roker Beach, Sunderland.

It is a common belief that sea anglers have the right to fish without restriction in the sea. Many point to the fact that this is a right which is enshrined in the Magna Carta. To a certain extent this is true – much of the coastline around the British Isles is indeed free for anyone to fish with a rod and line. However, when the issue is looked at in a little more detail it can be seen that there are in fact plenty of (perfectly legitimate) restrictions on anglers’ activities such as where anglers can fish, what species they can legally take from the sea, and where they can dig bait. It is naïve – and a way of getting into trouble – to simply believe that all saltwater fishing and related activities are totally free and without any form of restriction.

The Magna Carta and Sea Fishing

The Magna Carta was a charter issued in the year 1215 and signed by King John. It was massively important as it was one of the first pieces of legislation which limited the power of the monarch and brought in many of the laws which we take for granted today – for example it ensured that people could only be punished through the law of the land, and it set the basis for the trial and jury system we still use today. One of the key reasons the Magna Carta was introduced was because the King of England had been able to monopolise a large number of common resources that many people believe should be open to everyone. The Magna Carta enshrined the right of the common man to access these resources – and fishing was included as one of them.

Magna Carta
This is a picture of one of the four remaining exemplifications (official copies) of the original Magna Carta document. It is currently held at the British Library in London.

For this reason many people looking to protect the rights of sea anglers to fish wherever they want quote the Magna Carta and claim that the right to fish in saltwater or dig bait from the foreshore is guaranteed by this text. To a certain extent this is true, the Magna Carta does mention that people had a right to access the sea to fish. Unfortunately, it is not true that the Magna Carta gives anyone the right to fish wherever they want around the coast of Britain, this is a myth. The Magan Carta is a text which is over eight centuries old – it pre-dates the first written evidence of people fishing for sport/recreation by over 400 years! The Magan Carta is an absolutely ancient piece of legislation which set out some important rights but these have been altered and changed by new legislation time and time again over the ages. For example the Magna Carta gave people the right to catch fish from the sea, but legislation on minimum size limits, protection to endangered species and marine conservation zones have all (completely legitimately) altered the original rights the Magna Carta offered to anglers. Anyone being prosecuted for breaking these laws would not get very far trying to quote an 800 year old text which has no contemporary legal standing in their defence.

Fishing and Private Property

Shields Pier Gates
Like many piers around the UK, South Shields pier is locked overnight and in times of bad weather

Pier fishing: Fishing from piers and breakwaters is one of the most popular forms of fishing in the UK, but all piers in the UK are private property and to stay on the right side of the law anglers must follow the rules regarding times of access to fish these marks. Some piers may close for safety reasons during bad weather, other piers may have a ticketing system where anglers can pay a fee to fish the pier for a day. Other piers are only open to members of angling clubs, whereas some are closed to anglers altogether. Many of the piers which are popular in the summer months with members of the general public have codes of conduct for anglers, and rules such as no power casting and a maximum of two rods per angler – failure to observe the rules can see anglers banned from a pier.

Fishing Regulations Brighton Marina
A sign at Brighton Marina stating the rules and cost of fishing this mark. Note the CCTV warning sign in the top corner of the picture.

Unfortunately the summer mackerel season brings many ‘anglers’ who are more interesting in drinking/causing trouble than actually fishing, more on that is included on the page on Responsible Sea Angling. Anglers owe it to the owners of piers (and other pier users) to behave well on piers – leaving litter/bait lying around, casting dangerously or other bad behaviour such as cutting bait on seats are all sure-fire ways to get angling restricted or even banned on a pier.

Harbours and Ports: There are a huge number of private harbour and port areas around the UK, some of which see large volumes of commercial fishing enter and leave every day. There is a wide variation in the ways in which harbours and ports treat anglers – a few encourage angling, others just about tolerate it, and in an increasing number it is banned altogether. In some harbours there will be clear areas where fishing is allowed and others where it is banned, often for safety reasons. It is the responsibility of anglers to know both the parts of a harbour where fishing is allowed and where it is not. As with pier fishing, clearing up litter/bait etc. after fishing in a harbour area makes a good impression of anglers and increases the chances of the area staying open for angling in the future.

Marine Conservation Zones: There has been much talk and media coverage over Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) being established around the UK. The second series of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Fish Fight series was based around promoting this idea. Initially there were plans for 127 MCZs, but recent government wrangling has seen this reduced, much to the dismay of celebrity campaigners such as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Many of these MCZs are designated as zones which are offshore and therefore should not affect shore-based anglers too much. However, it is still unknown how much impact the MCZs which are designated within inshore areas will affect anglers. It is likely that rod and line fishing will be unaffected, as it is the destructive methods of some types of commercial fishing such as trawling nets along the seabed which will be banned. However, this is not certain and there is still a possibility that rod and line fishing may be affected. Time will tell.

Bait Collecting

Many people also quote the Magna Carta when it comes to bait collection as they claim that this gives them the right to collect bait from anywhere along the foreshore. This is true to a certain extent – the vast majority of the UK coastline is restriction-free when it comes to anglers collecting bait. However, local councils and authorities have the right to implement bye-laws which restrict bait digging for worms. For example many beaches have bait digging banned during certain times of the year, whereas other places ban bait digging altogether. The reasons for bait digging bans vary, but depletion of worm beds, disruption to bird colonies and the damage to the beach itself caused by anglers digging holes and trenches and then not filling them back in again are all causes. Areas next to commercial shellfish beds may also have bait collecting banned. This article in the Independent from 1994 illustrates many of the issues between anglers, professional bait diggers and local authorities when it comes to bait collection. It is down to anglers to check if a beach has restrictions which limit or ban bait collection (there are usually signs present if bait digging is banned or restricted) and then adhere to them. For places where bait digging is allowed anglers can enhance the chances of bait digging continuing by only taking the worms they need and not completely depleting a beach of worms (this is something more likely to happen with professional bait diggers rather than individual anglers), and of course filling holes back in after digging has taken place.

Bait Digging
A man digging for worms in Staithes Harbour, Scarborough.

It is not only digging for worms that can be restricted. Certain shellfish such as scallops and crustaceans (especially edible crabs) can have restrictions placed on them, making it an offence to collect them – not just commercially but also by hand for personal consumption or bait use. These bans are put in place to protect numbers of these species and ensure that there is a healthy breeding population, so anglers should, like everyone else, observe such bans.

Fish Size, Bass Bag Limit and Protected Species

Eels have plummeted in number in recent years, meaning they are now a protected species and cannot be retained by anglers.

All anglers should be aware of the minimum sizes for fish species – it is an offence to take fish which are below the minimum size and anglers caught doing this can face prosecution. Many species which are classed as endangered or under commercial pressure are returned by anglers even (if they are above the minimum size) to preserve stocks. More information on this and the minimum sizes of UK sea fish can be found by following this link. A number of species have variable size limits depending on where about in the country they are caught, and this is something which anglers must check.

Anglers should also be aware that there are a number of different fish species which are legally protected due to their seriously endangered status. Silver eels have protected status in many parts of the UK due to the fact that they have reduced in number by an estimated 95-99% over the last twenty years, and allis and twaite shad have been similarly reduced in number, meaning that they are also protected. It is an offence for anyone without the correct licence to keep shad, and anyone inadvertently catching one must return the fish to the water as quickly as possible and with as little harm as possible to stay on the right side of the law. There same was true for silver eels in 2009-10, and many regional bans still exist on retaining this species. Game fish (salmon and trout) are also protected species as a licence is required to legally catch these species.

From 1st of January 2016EU rules have restricted bass fishing for sea anglers in an attempt to halt the decline of this species. There exact rules governing exactly what anglers must do with bass they catch has been regularly changed. Initially anglers could retain three bass per day, but this was later changed to bass being a only catch-and-release species for anglers. For the current status of bass regulations for anglers please see the main article on bass by clicking here.

Related article: Do I Need a Licence for Sea Fishing?

Selling Fish for Profit

Previously anglers selling fish they had caught from the shore was perfectly legal – although anglers had to abide by food hygiene laws and environmental health laws (i.e. keeping the fish refrigerated) and declaring what they had sold to HMRC for the purpose of paying tax. In recent years the law appears to have changed and recreational anglers can no longer sell fish they catch for profit – this poster from the UK’s Marine Management Organisation states that “unauthorised” selling of fish is a criminal offence. However, the same document states that there are exemptions. People fishing commercially from the shore or from a un-powered boat less than ten metres in length can sell their catch without a licence (as long as they record their catch, declare the income and abide by all trading standards and food safety laws). Overall this creates a deeply confusing and unclear situation which desperately needs to clarification.

If a boat is motorised then it is illegal to sell the catch, regardless of the method of capture. This means that sport/recreational anglers catching any species of fish on a rod and line from a motorised boat out at sea will be breaking the law if they sell their catch. People have certainly been punished for doing this in the past.


After all that it can seem that sea fishing has a great deal of restrictions, but it is important to remember that the vast majority of the coastline of the British Isles is completely unrestricted when it comes to both fishing and bait collecting, and there are over one hundred species of fish found in UK waters with only a handful being legally protected. However, where fishing is restricted anglers should respect the rules which are there. No matter how unjust some of the restrictions on sea anglers seem it is always best to fight them by campaigning and pressuring the authorities to change the law,  and not simply ignore them. Anglers simply ignoring a restriction because they don’t think it is right leave themselves in danger of getting into real trouble, with fines and a criminal record a real possibility.