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Return of the Tunny

Jon Ward-Allen
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Return of the Tunny

Jon Ward-Allen

Between 1930 and 1954, in August and September, the Yorkshire seaside town of Scarborough was transformed by tunny fishing. Giant bluefin tuna, sometimes over 600lb in weight, would appear offshore, following the annual migration of herring shoals. Early each August, these gigantic shoals appeared about ten miles off the east coast of Yorkshire, being chased by hundreds of Dutch, Russian, German and British fishing drifters and trawlers. And some massive tunny. Well-heeled anglers would intercept these tunny and battle them from rowing boats towed out to the fishing grounds. The anglers themselves were a wealthy mix of aristocrats, film stars, industrialists and military types. A tunny club was formed, with rules and regulations on how to catch the fish - and badges and certificates were issued after catches . . .
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Scarborough’s local fishermen were at the centre of it all, helping the anglers reach the fishing grounds and finding the tunny. Local boy Bill Pashby said ’At night the sea was lit up like a town. You’d just go to the first ship with a crate of beer, and ask whether they’d seen any tunny fish.’ Bill was the son of a fishing family who helped the rich anglers that flocked to the town each year. ‘To us it were a holiday. We were fishing out of Grimsby, but we’d come back to Scarborough when the tunny were in. Just imagine it, no wind, and the water crystal clear, it was marvellous. And if the weather was bad, we still got paid!’ As a young boy, Bill was spared the task of rowing a small boat after a hooked tunny. That was men’s work. It was Bill’s job to get the tunny feeding in the first place, usually as the trawlers and drifters hauled their nets. ‘I was on the big boat, my dad’s keel boat Courage, chucking herring over the side when the nets came up.’

The tactic worked. One of the Pashbys’ regular clients was H. E. Weatherley, by far the most prolific member of the British Tunny Club in its final days. On 24th August, 1950, fishing from
Courage, he landed four staggering tunny of 589, 545, 743 and 714lb. He’d caught all four fish before breakfast.

Such catches couldn’t last. The herring declined, and so did the tunny. The men and women who chased the monsters off Scarborough have long gone, as have the trawlers, drifters and huge shoals of herring that brought the nomadic tunny to the North Yorkshire coast. But there are rumours of the tunny’s return and some anglers are hoping for a repeat of the great days of British big game fishing . . .


The Atlantic bluefin (
Thunnus thynnus) is endangered globally but is still seen quite often in British waters, mainly off south-west England and the Channel Islands. Regular sightings have occurred around Mounts Bay and Falmouth in Cornwall but despite the uncertainty of how many fish there actually are, some groups are calling for anglers once again to be allowed to catch tuna in British waters. There are currently restrictions on the targeting of bluefin tuna, though some do get caught by shark anglers, mainly between Plymouth and Penzance. In 2018, one angler hooked an Atlantic bluefin off Guernsey, battled the 500lb monster on rod and line for four hours, and released it back into the sea, alive. One possible reason the tunny are returning is the resurgence of some of the fish on which the tunny preys. Herring, sardine and sprat stocks have all recovered a little, and migration and environmental patterns are beginning to change and become more favourable to these top predators.
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Some big Scarborough tunny in 1936.

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The Angling Trust says that if the fish do go on to re-establish themselves, a catch-and-release fishery could be a prospect for Cornwall. The trust have put forward a plan for Cornwall which envisages new guesthouses, hotels and restaurants, serving visiting bluefin anglers during the tuna season, between late summer and early winter. Canadian research suggests that live-released tuna have the potential to generate far more revenue than commercially caught and landed fish, but for that to happen anglers have to be allowed to target bluefin tuna, something both they and commercial fishers cannot do at the moment. Supporters of catch-and-release claim that fewer than 5% of released fish die, and it is the method used when tuna are tagged to understand their behaviour better. For many coastal communities in Cornwall and the South-West, the return of the mighty tuna could be a welcome sight.

Through its European Union membership (watch this space), the UK is signed up to the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT), the body that decides how much of the fish countries can catch . . .

The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) announced in August 2020 that a Japanese longline fishery has become the first bluefin tuna fishery to achieve MSC certification. Just a few years ago, however, stocks of the Eastern Atlantic bluefin tuna were on the verge of complete collapse, and conservation groups believe that this licence will hinder the full recovery of the bluefin stock. Objections were raised by the WWF and the Pew Charitable Trusts, but despite them, the Usufuku Honten longline fishery licence will run from August 2020 until February 2026. Conservation groups worry that this certification is a clear example of fisheries jumping the gun. Charles Clover, Executive Director of Blue Marine Foundation said: ‘We strongly oppose the certification of the Eastern Atlantic bluefin tuna. Certifying a species that, less than twenty years ago, was pushed to near extinction is unimaginably short-sighted – these powerful predators deserve to be given more time to recover.’

Greenpeace, too, has long campaigned for strong tuna conservation measures, and for them the idea of anglers being able to target tuna now has also come far too soon. Will McCallum, head of oceans at Greenpeace UK said ‘Just a few years ago, bluefin was on the brink of collapse, and any decision to allow fishing for it, or potentially harming it by catching and releasing it, would have to be based on rigorous research regarding the true state of its recovery.’

As to current research, Thunnus UK is a collaborative project collating all the information on the status of Atlantic bluefin in UK waters. It’s also undertaking a tagging programme to collect evidence on the seasonal migrations and behaviour of bluefin tuna caught in our waters. The project is jointly run by The University of Exeter, Cefas and the Tuna Research and Conservation Centre of Stanford University and is supported by Defra and the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF).

So the jury’s out as far as our bluefin stocks are concerned and research continues, but it may be quite a while before we see Scarborough getting ready for a new tunny season . . .

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Read more about the history of UK tunny fishing in Chris Berry’s book Tunny - The Rise and Fall of Britain’s Biggest Fish.
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Testing a tunny rod in 1954!