Which Species of Fish Should be Returned?

Are anglers permitted to keep the fish they catch when sea fishing? The answer to this question is usually yes, although they are a number of laws, regulations and rules which can make the answer somewhat more complicated in some situations. While most species can be retained they must reach the minimum size limit – anglers keeping undersized fish can face prosecution. A number of species are protected by legislation due to their threatened or endangered conservation status. This means that anglers must return any of these species to the sea regardless of their size, and again, failure to do so can result in prosecution. Furthermore, there are species that anglers should consider returning even though there is no legal requirement to do so. This is because these species are either endangered (but lacking legislation to protect them), slow-growing and late-maturing (meaning numbers will take a long time to replenish) or are recovering from being overfished.

A further complication is that different regions of the UK, and the devolved nations, can set their own laws and by-laws to protect fish stocks and other species. This means a fish species which is legal to catch in one area might not be in another, and some areas can have special protection which bans them from being caught collected as bait. For these reasons, all of the information provided on this page is general in nature, and anglers should carry out their own enquiries to ensure that the fish they are retaining (or bait they are collecting) is legal in the area where they are fishing.

Minimum Size Limits

Minimum size limits (also known as minimum landing sizes, and officially as minimum conservation reference sizes) are the smallest size at which fish can be retained by commercial fishermen or recreational anglers. Minimum size limits have been implemented so that smaller fish have the chance to spawn at least once before being caught. This will, in theory at least, ensure that populations of fish species can reproduce at least once before being caught and retained. Anglers wishing to keep fish will therefore need to know the minimum size limits of the species they are aiming to catch and also have a tape measure or fish measure so they can ascertain the size of their catch.

Fish Measure
Fish measures are specifically designed to measure fish that have been caught when sea fishing.

Retaining undersized fish is a criminal offence in the UK, and any angler found in possession of undersized fish is liable to prosecution. Selected species that are commonly caught and retained by UK anglers have the following minimum size limits:

The source for the table above is the official website of the Marin Management Organisation which is available here. For our full list of minimum sizes for British fish species click here.

Minimum size limits can change and it is up to anglers to be aware of the limits for the species they are targeting. For example, the minimum size limit for bass was previously 36cm but this was increased to 42cm in 2015 due to the declining numbers of this species (there are currently further limits on retaining bass – see below). As well as this some species can have different size limits in different parts of the country. The official government page on minimum size states that mackerel have a 30cm limit in the North Sea and a 20cm limit everywhere else. However, a 20cm mackerel is very small and many anglers have a self-imposed 30cm limit when targeting this species wherever they are fishing. It is not just fish species that have minimum size limits, crustaceans and shellfish do as well. Lobsters must have a carapace length of 87mm to be taken and brown crabs have minimum sizes (as measured across the shell) ranging from 115mm to 160mm depending on where they are caught or collected in the UK.

Species Which Are Protected by Legislation

While minimum size limits apply to all fish, some species which are endangered must be returned to the sea if they are caught by anglers, regardless of their size. This is because legislation has been passed to protect these species, and it is a prosecutable offence to kill, injure or retain these species. While the exact protection given differs from species to species and depends on the exact nature of the legislation passed, anglers catching one of the species listed below should unhook the fish and return it to the sea as quickly and with as little damage as possible. While the minimum size limits for these species are still listed for reference purposes, these species cannot be retained or submitted for British records.

European EelSilver Eel: Silver eels are one of the strangest and most mysterious species found in British waters. Silver eels hatch from eggs in the Sargasso Sea near the Caribbean and then swim thousands of miles to Europe where they live in freshwater and saltwater for years before they return to the Sargasso Sea to spawn and then die. This complicated life cycle has led to eels significantly declining in number as the growing number of weirs, dams, sluices and pumping stations on rivers has blocked eel’s paths to migration and affected the species ability to reproduce. Additionally, silver eels are considered a delicacy in Asia which has led to huge numbers being caught in Europe to export to China. Despite new legislation banning European silver eels from being exported outside of the EU, there is a significant black economy that sees silver eels caught and illegally shipped to Asia, usually in consignments of otherwise legal seafood exports. This has led to silver eels being classed as Critically Endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature – the most serious category which represents a species being at imminent risk of extinction. Silver eels are protected under the Eels (England and Wales) Regulations Act 2009. This means that any anglers catching a silver eel must return it to the water and anglers failing to do so can be prosecuted.

ShadAllis and Twaite Shad: Allis shad (Alosa alosa) and twaite shad (Alosa fallax) are small silvery fish found in both the sea and freshwater rivers across Britain. The two species are so similar they are usually considered as a single species by anglers. Overfishing in parts of Europe and being captured as bycatch in commercial fisheries is believed to have reduced shad numbers, and, like eels, dams and other structures blocking paths to migration has severely disrupted spawning. With shad numbers decreasing significantly in recent decades both species are not protected under Section 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) meaning anglers must release any shad which are caught.

BassBass: In 2013 the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea carried out research which found that Europe’s bass stocks were at their lowest in twenty years. This led to a number of legal restrictions have been placed on both commercial fishermen and recreational anglers from 2015 onwards in order to replenish stocks. For recreational anglers in 2021 and 2022 this has meant that bass is legally a catch-and-release only species in January, February and December (the spawning season of bass). For all other months of the year, anglers can only retain two bass per angler per day, and these bass must be of the legal minimum size of 42cm (16½ inches) in length. There has been much debate about the fairness of these restrictions with many in the angling community believing that recreational anglers are being banned from catching bass in due to overfishing carried out by the commercial fishing industry. Read the full article on this by clicking here.

Angel SharkAngel Shark: Angel sharks are an unusual shark species that has a flat body similar to a ray or skate. They were once common across European waters but overfishing and seabed trawling has reduced populations to such an extent that the International Union for the Conservation of Nature classes them as Critically Endangered, both in European waters and on a global basis. While the chances of an angler catching an angel shark from the shore or boat are extremely slim, any which are caught have to be released as (according to the Shark Trust) the species is protected in England and Wales in 2008 under the Wildlife and Countryside Act and in Scottish waters under the Scottish Elasmobranch Protection Order. In the rest of Europe, angel sharks are a Prohibited Species under the Common Fisheries Policy.

GobyGoby Species: Anglers taking part in Light Rock Fishing (LRF) should be aware that the Giant Goby (Gobius Cobitis) and Couch’s Goby (Gobius couchi) are protected under Schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 due to their rare status. This makes it an offence to kill, injure or retain these species, and it is also an offence to damage or destroy the habitat they live in.

SalmonTrout and Salmon: Anglers fishing for trout and salmon in England, Wales and parts of the Scottish borders need a fishing licence to be able to target these species. Anglers found fishing for trout or salmon, or in possession of these fish, who do not have a valid licence can be fined and potentially prosecuted. Northern Ireland has its own separate licence and permit system, while in Scotland (excluding the parts of the Scottish borders which use the English and Welsh system) a licence is not required but anglers need to gain the permission of the landowner of the area where they are going to fish. Anglers targeting sea species who inadvertently catch salmon or trout must return the fish to the sea if they do not have the relevant licence.

TunaBluefin Tuna: Bluefin tuna were found in British waters in the first half of the twentieth century, but became scarce from the 1950s onwards. Since 2014 they have made a return to British waters and are now seen with some regularity around certain parts of the British Isles such as Cornwall, the coasts of Wales and Ireland. As an extremely valuable commercial fish, the capture of bluefin tuna is highly regulated. With the exception of anglers who have been selected for a scientific research project which will see bluefin tuna being tagged and tracked, recreational boat anglers are not permitted to target or land bluefin tuna. If a bluefin tuna is inadvertently caught when targeting other species it must be released alive and unharmed. It is not permitted to bring bluefin tuna on board a boat to be photographed before being released – they must be unhooked while still in the water. The official government advice on this species is available here.

Other Species to Consider Releasing

Some anglers fish only for sport and return all of the fish they catch but anglers are absolutely within their rights to retain any fish which are not protected by legislation and reach the minimum size limit. However, the following species merit special consideration for being returned due to their endangered status, low fecundity or migratory patterns.

Conger Eel
Conger eels are usually returned by anglers.

Mullet species (excluding red mullet) are a slow-growing and late-maturing fish that is incapable of rapidly reproducing if stocks are depleted. There is weak regulation of commercial mullet fishing and with this species providing a unique challenge for anglers the vast majority of people catching this species recreationally return their catches to the sea. The same is true of the shark species anglers target such as tope, bull huss, smooth-hound and spurdog. All of these species provide anglers with the chance of catching a relatively large and prestigious fish and almost all anglers, therefore, return them to the sea to fight another day. Indeed, smooth-hound appear to be expanding their range northwards making them a viable catch for an increasing number of anglers. This will be helped if they are caught on a catch-and-release only basis, with the same being true of the ray species which are found around the UK. Skate are a very rare catch from the shore, although they are caught by boat anglers slightly more often. Both species of skate found in British waters are classed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN meaning anglers catching this species always release them. Conger eels are one of the largest species anglers can realistically catch and due to their migratory patterns, any conger eels caught in British waters cannot have spawned. This means it is best to fish for this species on a catch-and-release basis to allow conger eels to reproduce, plus conger eel is not widely eaten due to the gelatinous nature of its flesh. Finally, wrasse are a non-migratory species that will spend their whole lives in the same area. This means that anglers can potentially deplete an area of wrasse if they are caught and retained. With wrasse, like conger eel, not being a well-regarded food fish it makes the most sense to return any wrasse which have been caught.