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 as much of the coastline around the British Isles is indeed free for anyone to fish with a rod and line. But 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 entirely without any form of restriction.

The Magna Carta was a charter issued in the year 1215 and agreed upon by King John. It was of immense historical significance 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.

The Magna Carta and Sea Fishing

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, collect shellfish or dig bait from the foreshore is guaranteed by this text. This is indeed true, as the Magna Carta does state that the crown must grant people access to the sea to fish.

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.

However, this does not mean that anglers in the twenty-first century can quote the Magna Carta to go fishing anywhere they like along the British coastline. The Magan Carta is an ancient piece of legislation which provided the basis for many laws today, but the rules it set down (which mostly related to feudal customs) have no direct application in law today.

For example, the Magna Carta gave people the right to catch fish from the sea, but legislation on minimum size limits, protection of endangered species and marine conservation zones have all (completely legitimately) altered the original rights the Magna Carta provided 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, many piers around the UK become a focal point of bad behaviour when so-called mackerel anglers descend on these marks and take part in anti-social behaviour – read more on our Responsible Sea Angling page. Responsible anglers should disassociate themselves from these groups and avoid leaving litter or bait lying around, casting dangerously or taking part in any other forms of bad behaviour as this will create negative publicity for angling and likely see fishing restricted or banned from piers.

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 vessels enter and leave every day. There is a wide variation in the ways in which harbours and ports treat anglers – in some harbours there will be clear areas where fishing is allowed and while in others fishing is banned entirely, 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, unused bait and other angling-related rubbish after fishing creates a good impression and increases the chances of the area remaining 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, with plans to establish 127 MCZs being rolled out. Many of these MCZs are being designated in areas which are miles out to sea and therefore will not affect shore-based anglers, but the extent to which inshore MCZs will limit angling remains unknown. There has been controversy over the lack of protection offshore MCZs provide with 97 per cent of designated MCZs still allowing some form of commercial fishing to take place within them. With this being the case it is unlikely (although not impossible) that inshore MCZs would ban or heavily restrict low-impact angling, although the exact way inshore MCZs will be implemented and the ways in which they affect angling remains to be seen.

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 mostly true as bait can be freely collected along much of the British coastline, but local councils do appear to be bringing in an increasing number of rules and regulations which limit, or in some cases ban, bait collection. 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 on bait collection (there will be 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 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 the 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

Silver eel numbers 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 species such as bass have different restrictions on their capture at different times of the year. This is something which anglers must be aware of before going fishing as taking undersized fish, or catching fish when it is prohibited to do so, is a prosecutable offence.

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 per cent 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 kill or retain 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. Game fish (salmon and trout) are also protected species in England as a licence is required to legally catch these species (different rules for salmon and trout exist in the devolved nations of the UK).

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

Selling Fish for Profit

In previous decades anglers were able to sell the fish they caught for profit if they so wished, but this is no longer the case. The Marine Management Organisation (MMO) states that:

“If you catch fish for your own enjoyment, you can keep it [the fish] for your personal consumption but you must not sell it.”

Source: Don’t Be Caught Out – MMO

The MMO go on to state that this includes fish caught by recreational angling, on fishing holidays and caught at sporting events and fish caught by recreational fishing by diving, potting and netting. Fish which are caught from a powered vessel can only be sold for profit if the person selling the fish (be it the vessel’s owner, the person who chartered the vessel or the person who caught the fish) has the correct licence. There are exemptions where the MMO states that people “may” be able to sell fish without a licence. This includes people fishing commercially from the shore without a vessel or from an unpowered boat less than ten metres in length. But the MMO go on to state that people doing this need to keep records of what they catch and sell and the MMO may check on their activities and pass the information on catches to environmental health and trading standards officers and HMRC.


After all that it can appear that there are a great number of bureaucratic rules and regulations on sea fishing, but it is important to remember that the vast majority of the coastline of the British Isles can be freely accessed for sea fishing. However, anglers should always follow the rules which do exist. Minimum size limits are there to protect fish stocks, and many restrictions on areas of harbours and piers are there to keep people safe. If anglers believe that an area is being unjustly closed off from them it is always better to campaign through the proper channels rather than simply ignore the restrictions and continue fishing.