The Scarborough big game fishery
The “tunny” fishery seems like a time-warp now and it was an aberration even in its heyday. The name itself was anachronistic – the rest of the world knows the species as the Bluefin tuna, but for British sportsmen and women in the thirties, tunny it had to be, although the term was common enough in America before the First World War. Time-warp or no, the tunny phenomenon was over almost as soon as it had started, the glory days at Scarborough lasting barely a decade, although the fishery was technically active from 1930 until 1954. But while it held sway, the Yorkshire town saw industrial magnates, film stars, and aristocrats battling with gigantic fish during a season that lasted less than three months, and generally only through August and September. A club was established to govern the sport, which approved records and sparked a controversy; and tunny fishing even developed its own elder statesman, the extraordinary Lorenzo Mitchell-Henry, who took much of the credit for discovering the sport.
Tuna, of course, had been known to North Sea fishermen for a long while before the 1930s. One of the earliest descriptions of them we have was by Pennant, who published a description and an illustration of the species in his British Zoology, published in 1776 and the first tuna was caught on a rod and line in the 1870s off Nova Scotia. As far as the trawler men were concerned, tuna were a gigantic nuisance, because they chased the herring right into their nets, punching enormous holes through them as they left. The occasional fish was taken, but they had little commercial value, the market for tuna being a late 20th century phenomenon in the UK at least.
Mitchell-Henry, a man who failed to understand the word “can’t” in several languages, industrialist, inheritor of a vast estate and possessor of an attitude most kindly described as belligerent, claimed to be the first man to catch a large Bluefin unaided on rod and line, a feat he achieved off Nova Scotia in 1914. By this time, captures of Bluefin on a rod and line were not particularly exceptional, but this fish was an order of magnitude larger than anything taken before and although the record was soon broken, it catapulted Mitchell-Henry into the limelight. True to form, he did not rest on his laurels and concentrated on designing improved tackle, while he prospected for even bigger tuna in the southern North Sea – and then, in August 1930, he caught his first Bluefin off Scarborough. Although well short of the world record, this was a big fish by anyone’s standards, weighing 560 lbs. and measuring 8 feet 6 inches. This fired the imagination of British anglers, who had been reading the reports of huge fish caught by the Tuna Club of Santa Catalina for thirty years and could scarcely believe that a similar opportunity lay on their doorstep.
If there was a fly in the ointment, it was that Scarborough didn’t have quite the kind of facilities that Avalon had on offer, but the prospect was enough to attract some classy money into the sport, with well-known figures like Sir Thomas Sopwith and Harold J. Hardy taking boats at Scarborough for the season. The fishing was unpredictable in the extreme, with some years passing without any tuna being seen, let alone caught, while others gave great sport. Some very experienced anglers went several seasons without getting a single bite, but nonetheless, Hardy’s were inspired to feature tunny fishing in their Angler’s Guides, largely to publicize the range of tackle they had developed specifically for the purpose, including the impressively workmanlike Fortuna reel - an example of which is shown in the sidebar.
With the exception of the reels, there was nothing sophisticated about the gear, the rods being as short as was compatible with providing sport and the hooks up to six inches long, baited with whole mackerel. It was pointless trying to stop the first run of a really big tuna, so the name of the game was to wear them down with constant pressure, never letting up for a moment. The length of the battles could be extremely variable, with some fish boated in less than 30 minutes, while others took hours to land – the difference probably being explained by the depth of hooking, because gut hooked fish never fight well.
The challenge of catching tunny was much the same at Scarborough as it was at Avalon, the standard method being to pursue the tuna in motorized launches, before transferring into a dinghy to catch and fight the fish. The British Tunny Club was formed in 1933, with its headquarters in the town and – much to the annoyance of the British Sea Anglers’ Society, which felt it should regulate the sport – began to issue pennants and to approve records. The records are complicated, because they followed the Avalon system and were split by line class, but the largest fish taken weighed 852 lbs. and was taken on a 160 lb. line by Lewis J. Hedley in 1949; which, by some freak of chance, was the last really good year for the fishery, which petered out in the 1950s.
What finished Scarborough’s tunny fishery? It is a good question, because the catches and rod effort fell away more or less simultaneously, but it seems that tuna migration altered, perhaps because prey fish became thin on the ground. The migrations of anglers changed as well, as cheaper, faster air travel put the world at Britain's doorstep and made foggy Scarborough seem just a little bit pedestrian. Both fish and fishermen headed south in search of richer pickings in warmer climes and the Yorkshire port and its improbable tunny club faded back into genteel obscurity.
Very few tuna were seen after the fifties and it is hard to imagine them venturing into the North Sea at all now, given the way it has been fished into oblivion. But there is still a chance, even if it is a slim one, that the a leap of imagination might reform the fisheries policy and the herring might come back – and if they do, the giant tuna will surely be waiting.
If you would like to read more, please consider Chris Berry’s wonderful book, Tunny, published by the Medlar Press, who fund the running of this site.