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A Brief History of UK Shark Angling

The sport of shark angling came into being due to a chance combination of circumstances.


The first of these was Brigadier Caunter who was an interesting character to say the least. He was captured by German forces in October 1914 before escaping the camp at Schwarmstedt in 1918. He later became the commanding officer of the 1st Battalion, Royal Tank Corps in Egypt in 1935 and then commander of the 4th Armoured Brigade in the Western Desert Campaign in January 1940 in which he saw action at the Battle of Beda Fomm in Libya in February 1941. He eventually became Deputy Director of Staff Duties , Armoured Troops at GHQ India in 1941 before retiring in1944. He was also a very keen angler and shortly after he retired he settled in Looe.


At that time the North Sea Tunny fishery, or as they are now better known, Atlantic Bluefin Tuna, was beginning to tail off due to the overfishing of the herring stocks which was the main food source for the Tunny.


Atlantic Bluefin Tuna were also present in Cornish waters and in 1936 seven were hooked of Mousehole but all escaped capture. In 1946 five large Tunny were seen off Looe Island by a group of four people and in 1947 the Brigadier saw two Tunny, he estimated to be 200lbs on two separate days, six miles South East of Looe.


We dont know whether this was one of the reasons the Brigadier chose to retire in Looe but we do know he spent a significant amount of his time fishing for Bluefin in Cornish waters. Although he hooked one in 1951, it broke his line and that was to be the one and only time he connected

with an Atlantic Bluefin Tuna.


What he did catch were large numbers of Blue Sharks which arrive in significant numbers in Cornish waters during the summer months and Briggy, as he became known to the locals in Looe, along with his batman would regularly put to sea and return with one or two sharks hung off

the mizzen mast of his boat.


Around the early 50’s, stocks of the humble pilchard which had provided Looe fishermen with employment for many years had begun to decline

significantly. In 1956, U. S. Companies started to open canning factories in South Africa which benefitted from cheap labour, allowing them to flood the world market with cheap pilchards. Consequently by 1960 there was only



Luggers in Looe harbour heading for the sardine canning factory



one canning factory left in Looe and the days of catching pilchards out of Looe came to an end.


The North Sea Tunny had stimulated a huge interest in big game angling but the cost of fishing for these in the North Sea meant it was restricted to a small number of very wealthy individuals.


Although the cost of shark angling gear was considerable it was much more affordable than Bluefin gear and accordingly more accessible to anglers.


Some of the early shark anglers had their own vessels, but most did not which provided an opportunity for the Looe commercial boats to replace shoals of pilchards with “shoals of anglers” which they did very successfully. It was, as they say, a win win situation.




Anglers quickly became increasingly aware of this new big game fishery and with the level of interest and engagement increasing at a pace, Briggy saw the opportunity to launch a big game angling club which led to the Shark Angling Club of Great Britain (SACGB) being formed in Looe on the 4th January 1953.

The local economy quickly became an integrated part of the fishery and many Looe businesses including hotels, bed & breakfast accommodation, pubs, restaurants, tackle shops and other businesses took full advantage of the opportunity. To this day the shark fishery continues to be a major economic contributor to Looe and many other coastal communities around our coasts

  







If Briggy had caught his Bluefin in 1951 and the pilchard stocks hadn’t declined the SACGB may never have existed but as they say its an ill wind that blows no good.


Although the cost of shark angling gear was significantly less than Bluefin gear it was still beyond the reach of many anglers so initially the SACGB attracted those who were comfortably well off. This restricted membership and it has been said that this suited many of the original members who enjoyed the exclusivity of the club.



The genie was out the bottle though and it didn't take long for Jack Bray who owned a fishing tackle shop in Looe which also provided a boat booking and shark weighing service, to realise that if he purchased sets of shark angling gear, they could be rented to anglers on a daily or longer basis.

This opened the door to a much wider group of anglers and club membership began to grow exponentially. By the early 60’s its membership was in excess of 1000.


Promotion came easily to the early club members who were in general very well connected and the club was reported widely in the UK national press and angling journals. The BBC also took advantage of the sports popularity with club members and Looe skippers regularly featuring on news clips and documentary programmes.




Looe angler, Daphne Case with Arthur Brittenden - Reporter,

John Silverside - Photographer and Ron Roberts


The club gave honorary membership to the Bay of Islands Swordfish Club in New Zealand and the Tuna Club of Avalon in the USA. They also became full members of the International Game Fishing Association (IGFA) and were assigned IGFA UK Weigh Master status for any UK caught World Record fish claims. These connections gave the club international coverage and recognition and with that many overseas members




Mrs Sonia Speets, one of the clubs Dutch members

receiving a trophy from Brigadier Caunter



The rate of financial growth being generated by the club was confirmed by the committee decision in 1958 that the clubs finances had reach such proportions that it was unreasonable to expect the Treasurer to hold full responsibility. In view of this, Trustees were appointed to assist.


The club had bold ambitions and in 1954 they sent a telegram conveying Loyal Greetings to Her Majesty on behalf of the club members.


In 1958 the club booked the Cafe Royale in London for its annual dinner and prize giving which was a tremendous success. The invited H R H The Duke of Edinburgh as principal guest, however the minutes of the January 1959 committee meeting note that, “H R H The Duke of Edinburgh finds that his commitments in May are such that it is with regret that he cannot accept our invitation”.


This did not deter the club from continuing to make attempts to secure the Dukes patronage which on one occasion led them to send a committee member to a New York sporting event which the Duke was attending with the express purpose of using their by now extensive international contacts via their membership of the International Game Fishing Association to make contact with the Duke. This one, along with many other attempts failed but

each year they dutifully sent a birthday telegram to Her Majesty on behalf of the club and its members.


The Cafe Royal was a lavish black tie event where a toast to Her Majesty and speeches were the order of the day. Guests included the editor of The Field magazine and heads of the Fisheries Department and the British Museum of Natural History.



From left club President F.A. Mitchell Hedges, Brigadier Caunter, Daphne Case

and club Treasurer Pat Case


The boatmen were invited but were requested to wear their boat jerseys.


Although Looe was undoubtedly the busiest UK shark angling centre and the spiritual home of the sport, shark angling quickly spread beyond Looe. Fishing communities around the Cornish, Devon and Dorset coasts were quick to embrace this new sport, with ports from Appledore to Penzance, to the Isle of Wight and the Crown Dependencies of Jersey and Guernsey being among the first to get involved. Sometime later the sport reached other areas, for example South Wales, the Shetland Islands, and Scrabster in the north of Scotland.


Many smaller shark angling clubs formed around the country, most of which were affiliated to the SACGB. The better known coastal ones were in Falmouth, Salcombe, Torbay, Weymouth, Brixham and Appledore.

Not living by the sea did not mean you couldn’t have a shark club though and members of these clubs regularly met in their local pubs to talk shark and plan their next trips. Places like Oxford, Northampton, Burbage, West Middlesex and London all had active shark angling clubs. We also know that the Royal Navy had a shark angling section.


The SACGB was without doubt a prime mover in many local economies and the passion for the sport which it promoted within angling circles back then remains very much in place today as it continues to deliver economic benefit to many coastal communities.


Initially, membership of the club was through the capture, unaided, of a shark weighing a minimum of 75lbs. In the early days there was a reduced weight for lady members but that only lasted a couple of years. Possibly because the men quickly realised that female shark anglers were their equal as throughout the history of the sport, female anglers have performed

exceptionally well, in many cases outdoing the best efforts of the men.



Club member Pat Smith enjoying a brew on a days sharking

with legendary Looe skipper, Alan Dingle


For a shark to qualify it had to be weighed on a calibrated set of scales and preferably by an SACGB appointed weigh master. This required the shark to be killed and brought ashore. Evening weigh sessions when the boats returned to Looe were well attended events with large numbers of tourists and locals gathering around the weigh station to watch the weighing procedure. If news of a particularly large shark reached the shore, it wasn’t unusual for the crowds to line the quay, all the way from the end of the Banjo Pier to the weigh station, all hoping to get a glimpse of the fish as the boat and its captor headed up river to its mooring.



The best year for sharks caught was 1958 when 5744 were caught but by the early 60’s numbers had started to decline. Many theories were proposed for this stock reduction from colder weather to changes in flow of the gulf stream. These could all of course have been factors but the other was the large numbers of sharks being killed to be brought ashore and weighed. Blue sharks reach maturity at 5 to 6 years at which time their expected weight would be on average around 75 to 80 lbs.  This meant that the membership criteria was actually killing the breeding stock.


In 1991 a shark angler from the Bembridge Angling Club in the Isle of Wight wrote to the club proposing an alternative membership system. Danny Vokins suggestion was to use the correlation between fish length and weight. This enabled the 75lb weight requirement to be replaced with a measurement from tip of the nose to the fork of the tail. Danny explained that if this was 70” the fish would be close to or above 75lbs. Once measured, the fish could be returned alive and the stock was therefore protected. The initial response from the SACGB was to reject Dannys proposal as they believed this would introduce cheating with membership claims.


To their eternal credit, the Bembridge Clubs response on hearing the SACGB decision was to immediately withdraw their membership of the club. Danny persisted though and in 1994 the SACGB Committee agreed to move from a system of kill and weigh to one of measure and live release for membership.


They also adopted the formula Danny proposed which used length and girth measurements to estimate weight so the clubs trophies could continue to be competed for without the need for weighing.


In 2023 the British Record Fish Committee (BRFC), in consultation with the Shark Hub UK, reviewed fish handling and welfare issues relating to shark record claims. This resulted in the decision being taken to introduce length based records for all the species, with the exception of mini-species, on the BRFC main list.

For the larger shark species (Blue, Porbeagle, Thresher, Mako, Six Gill) there are now only length based British records available with an additional requirement that they must be measured whilst still in the water. They are also working in collaboration with the Shark Hub UK to develop digital measurement techniques to aid measuring fish still in the water.


In recent years we have seen blue sharks return in larger numbers and whilst some of this is due to better marine management through long line restrictions and a reduction in fining, the action taken by the SACGB to move to a system of measure and release undoubtedly had a positive effect on the stock.


Although one of the enduring images of shark angling is sharks hanging from a weigh scale on the quay what is not so well known is that as far back as 1959 the SAGB were involved with the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries in a tagging programme when 200 sharks were successfully tagged and released. Perhaps the clubs highest profile tagging programme was one sponsored by Jack Daniels. The club currently tag for the National Oceanic an Atmospheric Administration or NOAA as its better known, who are based in the US.




Today if a shark angler killed a shark purposely they would no longer be welcome within the shark angling community.


The SACGB have developed a best practice handling guide to provide guidance on how to handle sharks as although a badly handled shark may swim away, there is a risk it will suffer ongoing life injury or at worst die, if not handled correctly.


Circle hooks with micro barbs are almost universally used now. These are specifically designed to hook fish in the corner of the mouth which makes it easier to release the fish and an increasing number of skippers now release sharks in the water rather than boarding them.


The SACGB Honorary Biologist, Dr. Simon Thomas and John McMaster, recently constructed a UK Shark catch record time series, using the catch data from the SACGB and other sources of historical data. The database, known as the Pat Smith Database, named after one of the clubs successful lady members, is now the largest continuous time series database for shark and the second largest shark database in the world. It is added to each season by the catch and release records from the SACGB and a large number of other shark charter skippers.


The work Simon has done has been recognised by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) and is actively contributing to our understanding of these magnificent ocean wanderers and how to better protect them.


The sport of shark angling has come along way since 1953. Throughout its journey it has provided, and continues to provide much needed economic benefit to many coastal communities and promotes recreational sea angling led scientific programmes.


It has learned the lessons of the past and adopted catch and release with a growing number of skippers and anglers now choosing not to board, unhook and release, preferring to release them in the water.


Shark anglers and shark charter skippers come from all walks of life but they all have one thing in common and that is their love for the sport, a commitment to catch and release and an unwavering support for the conservation of the fish they seek and respect …. The Shark

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