All anglers dream of catching a UK record fish, with the record catches for each species being widely known throughout the angling community. However, in these conservation-minded times the fact that fish have on many occasions been killed in order to be weighed and claim a record has become increasingly controversial. Indeed, a number of species now have verified catches which far exceed the current UK record but cannot be claimed as the fish has been released alive by the anglers who caught it. This has led to controversy over the way in which records for British species are complied with calls growing for a new system to be created which does not involve killing fish.
The British Record (Rod Caught) Fish Committee (BRFC) is the organisation which is responsible for verifying British record freshwater, saltwater and game fish which have been caught by fair rod and line angling methods in the United Kingdom and the Channel Islands. The BRFC is responsible for investigating and verifying all record claims for fish and then maintaining an accurate list of such catches. The committee of the BRFC meets to ratify claims made for new record catches. It is made up of members who specialise in and represent different areas of angling, as well as a number of scientific advisors. Today the BRFC is part of the Angling Trust.
The BRFC has a number of rules and regulations which must be followed by anglers submitting a claim for a British record sea fish. These include the fish being caught by only one angler (a second person may help land the fish by net or gaff) and the fish must be caught by “fair angling.” This is defined as the fish being caught on rod and line and by taking a baited hook or the hook of a lure into its mouth. Fish submitted for a shore caught record must be caught from land or man-made structure, and boat caught record fish must be caught in the waters of the UK from a boat which has not called at any port outside of the territorial waters of Britain. Photographic evidence of the angler with the fish must be submitted, along with the name of the angler and the place and date of capture. The fish must also be weighed on scales which are of appropriate size for the fish and these scales must also be able to be tested by the BRFC. In many cases a fish will have to be killed in order to be accurately weighed and submitted for a record – a controversial point which is discussed in more detail below.
Sea Angling Record Fish Catches
Records for sea angling catches go back many decades. The oldest record is for a shore caught dab which was caught by M. L. Watts at Morfa Beach in Port Talbot 1936. The largest shore caught fish is a 169lb 6oz skate caught in 1994 (more on this catch below) and the largest boat caught record is a tunny (bluefin tuna) of 851lbs caught by Lorenzo Henry-Mitchell off the coast of Whitby in 1933 which remains the biggest ever rod and line catch in British waters. The smallest fish listed by the BRFC is a common goby (Pomatoschistus microps) caught by Geoffrey Green at Blackwater and Chelmer Canal in Essex which weighed 1 gram. The increasing accuracy of modern scales – along with the growing interest in LRF (Light Rock Fishing) – means that measurements of record mini species are necessarily becoming increasingly accurate. The record for Connemara sucker (Lepadogaster candollei) was 10 grams, set by Jonathan Trevett in 2009. In 2016 this record was broken by Charlie Tudball who caught a Connemara sucker weighing 10.9 grams in Ilfracombe Harbour in March 2016, setting a new record by less than one gram.
In sea angling record catches are have their weights primarily recorded in pounds and ounces, although mini species – fish generally growing to no more than 1lb in weight – have their weight expressed in grams and in some cases fractions of a gram. In freshwater fishing there further rules and regulations which must be followed regarding cultivated fish (fish which have been artificially fed to reach a record weight and then released and caught) and imported species. Indeed, the issue of imported species has been a contentious one in freshwater angling. The record for wels catfish, a species which can grow to several hundred pounds in weight, was suspended as the species was being illegally imported into the UK in order to grow fish to a large enough size to set a new record. In 2016 an angler received death threats after catching a 70lb carp known as “Big Rig” over claims that the fish was imported from Israel and had been cultivated to its huge size before being released and then caught by the angler. Due to these issues the fish was not accepted as a new official record. Claims for protected or endangered species (for sea anglers this includes shad and silver eels) will also be rejected. Any angler catching a protected species should unhook and release it immediately.
A surprising number of fish species do not have a British shore caught record. These include herring, John Dory, comber, halibut, sandy ray and, less surprisingly, a number of shark species such as mako, thresher and blue sharks. To set a new record for these species a minimum qualifying weight which must be reached to make a catch eligible for submission. This weight is set in proportion for the size of the species. For example the qualifying weight for herring is set at 1lb, John Dory is set at 3lb and the shark species have a qualifying weight set at 40lb. This explains why some species have been caught from the shore but have not been listed as a new record. In 2009 reports emerged that a 3lb 9oz halibut had been caught from South Shields Pier in north east England. However, as the qualifying weight for this species is set at 10lbs (from the shore) this catch could only be listed as a regional record, and not as an official national British record. The full and complete list of procedures for making a claim for a new record fish can be read on the Angling Trust website by clicking here and an up to date list of British Record Fish can be seen on this website by clicking here.
Controversy and the Notable Fish List
The BRFC today finds itself in the unenviable position of having to accurately assess and then ratify potential record fish and ensure that they do surpass the previous recorded weight at a time when conservation and environmental issues dominate the media. This means that the previous way of verification – killing fish and then weighing them on scales which can be checked and assessed – has never been more controversial. There are campaigns and online petitions to stop the International Game Fish Association (the governing body for international record fish) awarding weight based records which require fish to be killed, and US shark tournaments are finding that the practice of catching and killing threatened and endangered species of shark and then bringing them back to land to be publicly weighed is becoming increasingly controversial.
While it may currently be the case that only the US angling industry has to grapple with these issues it is only a matter of time before the same criticisms are levelled at British anglers. While the blue shark fishery off Cornwall is much more progressive in its methods and operates a strict catch-and-release policy anglers may find that this is not enough to deflect criticism and controversy over animal cruelty. Similarly, tentative proposals for the re-establishment of a British bluefin tuna fishery following the return of this species have been heavily criticised by conservationists and animal rights groups, despite it being made clear that any such fishery would only fish for tuna on a catch-and-release basis.
Many anglers agree that fish should not be caught and then killed purely to be weighed in order to set a new record, especially with threatened, rare or endangered species. The record for common skate was set in 1994 when Mr. G. Mackenzie caught a 169lb 6oz skate off the Isle of Lewis, Scotland – a catch which remains, in the official list of record fish, the UK’s biggest ever shore catch. However, a number of larger skate have been caught from the shore since then, including specimens which have exceeded 200lbs. With this species being classed as Critically Endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature anglers who have caught these skates have released them rather than killing them to be weighed and submitted for a record. The BRFC has responded to the changing times by creating their Notable Fish List. This lists the names of people who have caught very large fish which may have set new British records but were unable to submit a claim as they released the fish alive. In many cases fish included on this list have their weight estimated as there was no practical way of accurately weighing the fish before it was returned to the sea (for common skate the BRFC supply a chart which allows the weight to be estimated by measuring the wingspan and length of the skate).
The latest Notable Fish List is from 2017 and includes a common skate caught in 2012 from a boat off the coast of Orkney by Martin White which has its weight estimated at 229lbs. This would have set a new boat caught record by 2lbs. A shore caught skate of 226lbs was caught by Craig MacKay at an undisclosed mark on the shoreline of the east coast of Scotland in 2014. This skate was estimated at being 57lbs heavier than the existing British record, but again as the skate was released it could not be submitted for a claim. The BRFC Notable Fish List can be viewed on the Angling Trust website.
One angler found a novel way of claiming a British record without killing the fish he caught. Steve Juggins holds the British boat caught record for undulate ray with a catch of 22lb 13oz caught in 2016 off the coast of Weymouth, Dorset. The ray was kept alive after being caught and taken to land to be weighed on scales which could be checked and verified by the BRFC. Following this it was taken back out to sea and released at its place of capture.
One answer to this issue is to switch from a weight based system for record catches to a length based one. While this would be a major change in sea angling it would mean that fish could be caught, photographed and measured before being safely returned to the sea. While this would not have been practicable in previous years the ubiquity of camera phones and digital cameras today means that there is nothing stopping this from happening and the BRFC would still be able to apply strict criteria to ensure high standards of verification for any fish being submitted for a new record. Of course this would be a huge change for both the BRFC and the angling community and would raise serious questions, most notably what happens to the existing weight based records which have been being complied for close to a century. There are no easy answers to these questions, but there is little doubt that changes will have to be made to the current weight based system of listing record fish as criticisms from environmental, conservation and animal welfare organisations will continue to be levelled at the world of angling.
Update: In January 2021 news emerged that the Angling Trust/BRFC was considering allowing video evidence to be used to set official British record catches. The move was sparked when angler Guntars Zukovskis caught a 21lb 5oz bass from Lilstock in Somerset in February 2020. He filmed himself weighing the bass and then returned it to the sea. Although the bass broke the current British record of 19lb 12oz the fish was not accepted as a record as he was fishing alone and under current rules a witness needs to be present to verify the catch, even if video evidence has been taken. Zukovskis’s bass was instead included in the BRFC’s Notable Fish List with a confirmed weight of 21lb 5oz. While the change in the rules was reported in the national media the exact details on how video evidence will be used is still at the time of this update (February 2021) unclear.