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History of British tuna fishing

British Tuna Fishing was prolific for a number of years, Mike Thrussell looks at the history of British Tuna Fishing and its future.

Evidence of bluefin tuna making an annual migration in UK waters goes back a few hundred years. I’ve found reference to huge fish referred to as “blue mackerel” being taken in nets worked by men in rowing dinghies off Devon and Cornwall in the early 1800’s. These fish were taken in nets set for pilchard and caused chaos aboard with the men fearing for their lives in case their boats capsized.

There are similar stories from the west of Ireland, particular off the north Mayo and Donegal coast where tradition tells of men hauling “king mackerel” in nets worked for herring in the fall period. The stories add that the fish were so large that the men had no way, and probably no real interest, in weighing them. I came across this particular information while researching porbeagle shark movement.

Large “mackerel” type fish were regularly seen around the Scottish coast, especially the islands of the Orkneys and the Shetlands. The time period suggested indicates early July, but there is no record of fall time fish making a return journey.

Definite tuna recorded in the past have been a 728lb bluefin washed ashore on a mudbank in Poole harbour, Dorset on 16th November 1912. Its picture appeared in the Fishing Gazette at the time. In 1928 a massive 1000lber did the same on a mud bank at Walton-on-the-Naze, Essex. Tuna have also been regularly recorded through the decades until the mid 1970’s in the nets of commercial fisherman at Mevagissey, Penzance and Newlyn in Cornwall.

We briefly and deliberately stray out of UK waters now. Way before the 1920’s bluefin were being caught in southern Norwegian and Danish waters by vessels working the inshore grounds with long-lines and nets. These fish were large. Many exceeding 800lbs and with evidence of much larger fish.

It was this latter information, plus sightings of huge fish rolling around the herring drifters and trawlers in the North Sea that spurred the likes of R. F. Stapleton-Cotton and Mitchell Henry to assume that bluefin were the culprits and to try and catch them.

Their theories were realised when a bluefin was harpooned by a commercial vessel off Scarborough.

British tuna fishing began in 1929. Famous angler Mr Stapleton-Cotton hooked two large fish estimated at well over 600lbs off Scarborough, Yorkshire, but sadly lost both. By the fight, sheer weight, awesome power and brief sightings these fish were identified as bluefin.

The summer and fall of 1930 proved decisive. It was August 27th when Mitchell-Henry sunk a hook into a tuna weighing 560lbs some 50 miles off Scarborough. The season didn’t end there. A further four fish weighing 392lbs, 591lbs, 630lbs and 735lbs, this just 23lb below the then current Zane Grey’s record Nova Scotia fish at 758lbs.

High hopes for the 1931 season were not to be realised. Persistent bad weather conditions throughout the spring, summer and fall periods were blamed for the absence of fish. Only one, another 560lber to Mitchell-Henry’s rod was the reward for many anglers long hours trying their ill-fated luck.

The 1932 season was a total contrast and proved the best for overall numbers caught. In total, 21 bluefin were captured with several fish over 700lbs in weight. The world record fell with a 798lber caught by Colonel E. T. Peel and breaking the record by 40lbs. The ladies were in on the act too. A Mrs Sparrow boated a 469lb fish. All these fish were taken far out in the North Sea around the Dogger Bank from the ports of Whitby and Scarborough with the anglers fishing in close vicinity to the herring netters.

1932 was a key season in more ways than one. It proved the first bluefin arrived during early July, earlier than previously suspected. That said, it was more towards the end of August when the bigger fish and peak numbers were working the shallow waters of the Dogger Bank. Fish were still seen in October, and in isolated cases even November in a mild autumn. Dawn was the most likely time to get a strike, though this tended to coincide with the hauling of the nets and may have clouded common sense. Mackerel (Boston’s) were found to be a better bait than herring. Cloudy conditions and choppy seas produced more sightings of tuna as they boiled on the surface to take dying herring thrown from the nets than was the case in calmer seas. It also proved that tuna ran closer inshore and further south than previously believed with some hooked just 4 miles off Flamborough Head near Bridlington, well south of Scarborough.

The climax for British tuna fishing was reached in 1933 with a fish that is still the UK record weighing 851lbs taken off Whitby in Yorkshire, again by Mitchell-Henry.

The latter 1930’s saw more fish taken, including a remarkable catch of five tuna weighing 461lbs, 527lbs, 545lbs, 621lbs and 658lbs, all reportedly taken in a single days fishing by Captain C. H. Frisby VC (Victoria Cross medal). Captain Frisby fished for five consecutive days and caught 12 tuna in total.

But the fishing had to take second place as war clouds rolled across the European horizon. The late 40’s and early 50’s brought anglers back to the North Sea, again targeting tuna. Over 150 fish were reportedly taken, some in the 600lbs to 700lbs class, but it was to be short lived.

The technological advances in electronics spawned by the war made fishing vessels far more effective. Quickly, both the once abundant mackerel and herring stocks of the North Sea were depleted to such a degree that the food supply was much reduced. This lack of food was blamed for the disappearance of the tuna.

The commercial exploitation certainly had its part to play, but weather cycles were also inconsistent at this time and many boats changed fishing techniques away from herring to target cod, hake and haddock and may have missed the tuna altogether. Certainly, the tuna did go AWOL for a while, but I don’t think totally so. They were still seen off Ireland and the Orkneys, but the anglers weren’t there to catch them and the industry died in the false belief that the tuna were elsewhere.

The tuna certainly hadn’t disappeared. A commercially caught bluefin weighing 750lbs was taken in to Newlyn fish market in Cornwall in 1968 and had a 12/0 Seamaster hook in it’s jaw, probably from a long-line. The same period saw smaller bluefin between 102lbs and 120lbs either washed ashore or net caught in several Devon and Cornish estuaries including the Yealm and the Hayle. Bluefin estimated at 1000lbs were seen feeding and leaping in a shoal just off Stoke Point east of Plymouth several times during the 1970’s. This coincided with several tuna between 620lbs and 880lbs being brought in to Cornish ports by boats that had been working the mackerel shoals within 10 miles of shore around the Lizard Peninsula and Dodman Point. Tuna were also seen frequently inside Mounts Bay near Mousehole and off Trevose Head , Cornwall during 1976, 1982 ,1983, 1987, 1990 and 1994.

The same time periods saw bluefin recorded in Ireland at Cork, Roscarberry, the Fastnet Rock, by the Blasket Islands off Dingle, all along the Mayo coast especially Achill and Porturlin, and out from Donegal Bay. A catch of five tuna was recorded off Dingle in October of 1979, and more importantly nine fish were taken in salmon nets off the Donegal coast during October 1989. I saw photographs of these fish, which were taken in to a commercial fish plant locally. The fish were weighed and the biggest touched 1248lbs. A very serious sized tuna!

Scotland too, continued to see tuna caught commercially right through the 60’s, 70is and 80’s. 1989 saw a three fish catch, the best a fish over 400lbs taken in September 1989 close to the Isle of Lewis.

Most important of all is that there are two reports of anglers being hit by huge fish off Whitby during the summer of 1999 that stripped large reels down to the connector knot and kept on going. All this in a single burst of speed. Sharks are rare in the North Sea and would most likely be porbeagles anyway. Porgies are fast fish in a burst, but there’s no way they’ll take 500-yards or more of line in one go and keep going. The obvious assumption is that the tuna are back! I also got reports of massive fish boiling amongst mackerel shoals during that August out of Bridlington and Scarborough.

Albacore have also regularly featured in commercial catches in areas along the west coast of Ireland, around the Scilly Islands and Cornwall in the southern section of the English Channel, and even in the Irish Sea off the Welsh coast. In fact, an albacore of 16lbs was washed up in Cardigan Bay near to where I live in 1999. That said, none had ever been taken on rod and line until three years ago when a commercial fisherman took one on rod, line and lure while waiting for his nets to fill trolling west of the Fastnet Rock in Ireland. This feat was repeated during September of 1999 when an Irish angler recorded six albacore between 12lbs and 26lbs trolling a tuna tango lure west of Dingle.

Skipjack tuna are also here. They have been recorded and verified as far north as the Solway Firth in southern Scotland taken in stake nets, from Anglesey in north Wales, Pembrokeshire in west Wales, from Rosslare in Ireland, and from several areas of the Cornish coast, especially St Ives.

Other tuna documented include big-eye tuna and bonito from several areas of Ireland, Wales and Cornwall.

The question is will British tuna fishing turn serious again, with a tuna fishery that is sustainable for rod and line anglers. Only time knows the answer.