Monsters of the North Sea

Big game fishermen used to flock to Scarborough to hunt the tunny. Jeannie Swales hears rumours of its return.

Better known to most people today by the name we see on the tin in the supermarket – tuna – the tunny fish was relatively common in the North Sea 80 years ago; so much so that in 1933, an angler fishing out of Scarborough caught one that proved to be the biggest ever rod-caught fish in British waters, a record that has yet to be beaten.

In the late 1920s and through the 1930s, the resort became a Mecca for big game fisherman keen to catch the glittering prize of a magnificent bluefin tuna – a spectacular, muscular member of the mackerel family that would have given Ernest Hemingway, a renowned big game fisherman, a run for his money. Millionaires and movie stars rubbed shoulders in the town’s hotels and in the Tunny Club on Sandside.

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Adventurer, inventor and big game angler Lorenzo Mitchell-Henry was part of that glamorous set. One of those confident, somewhat eccentric “can-do” types thrown up regularly by the last days of the Empire, Mitchell-Henry was a competitive sportsman who was so committed to his quest that he designed a special piece of equipment for his home gym in London to replicate the powerful lunges of a hooked tunny, and used to train on it for up to an hour a day.

Mitchell-Henry was 67 in 1933, the year he landed an 851lb tunny off Whitby and set the record that still stands – barring an unfortunate business in 1949 when Lincolnshire’s John Hedley Lewis caught a tunny that weighed in at 852lb, a weight hotly disputed by Mitchell-Henry, whose fish had been weighed on railway scales, rather than hanging by a rope. Mitchell-Henry contended that the rope, and possibly even the water which soaked it, might have contributed to the final weight.

Always up for a fight – he had a long-running feud with the famed American big game angler Zane Grey – Mitchell-Henry prevailed, and his record stood. The preserved and mounted Hedley Lewis fish was until recent years a popular exhibit at Scarborough’s former museum of natural history at Woodend, and is still in the Scarborough Collections today.

A particularly vivid account of tunny fishing is given by one of the town’s more famous sons, the hotelier Tom Laughton, younger brother of Hollywood film star Charles Laughton. In his lively memoir Pavilions by the Sea he describes how, in the early 30s, he chartered the local herring coble Our Maggie for four weeks, then spent the first three “ranging the North Sea in the vicinity of the herring fleet without seeing a sign of a tunny” – although he spotted many porpoises, sharks and whales.

At dusk one evening in the fourth week, a tunny finally took the bait. “Suddenly there was a terrific pull, the top of the rod shuddered, and for a moment the pressure nearly brought it down to the dinghy thwarts… the line ran out at frantic speed; all I could do was to keep the point of the rod up, whilst Charlie [not his brother!] rowed the boat in the direction the fish was going, to relieve the tension… It took me nearly four hours to bring that fish to the gaff… I was completely exhausted… My arms were done, my back was aching with the strain of the harness.”

The tunny in these waters fed primarily on herring, and the collapse of the population of that fish in the latter half of the 20th century meant that the tunny moved on – the last recorded catch off Scarborough was in 1954. But over the years, there have been regular flurries of speculation that it might be returning. As recently as October 1993, the Independent reported that fisherman Mark Goff was planning to spend a night on the chilly waters of the North Sea hoping to hook a tuna. “I am certain they are still to be caught off Scarborough,” he was quoted as saying. Whether he was successful or not doesn’t seem to have been recorded.

And in June of this year, the Yorkshire Post reported that two Atlantic bonito tuna had been caught off Whitby by the coble Courageous – but at less than 4lb each, they were just tiddlers compared to the leviathan bluefins of the thirties.

They were bought by Matthew Asquith, Director of Staithes-based Whitby Seafish, who says that two more bonito were caught later in the year: all four fish had become entangled in salmon nets.

“The tunny went because the herring went,” he says. “But the Hatherleigh has been going out of Scarborough doing research recently, and each time has come back with five or six boxes of herring, so they are out there again. And if the herring come back, then the tunny may well, too.”

Scarborough fisherman Fred Normandale is also open-minded on the subject. He recalls seeing tunny just once in his fishing career, on a flat calm August day in the late 70s.

“There wasn’t a ripple that day,” he remembers. “We were trawling at about three knots, and I suddenly spotted two fins up ahead of us in the water, swimming in tighter and tighter concentric circles. I could tell they were big fish, and I knew they weren’t dolphins or porpoises, or sharks; I’d recognise those.

“When we got back, I checked them out, and they were definitely tunny.”

Fred sees no reason why the bluefin shouldn’t still be out there. They’re big fish, but, as he points out, it’s a big sea, and what he calls “the sentinels” – the herring drifters who were after the same prey as the bluefin – aren’t there to spot them 
any more.

“When I was a boy, there could be a hundred or more herring drifters in Scarborough Harbour: you could walk from one side to the other stepping from boat to boat. Now, there’s only a handful of boats fishing out of Scarborough, mostly for crab and lobster, so if the tunny are out there, there’s no-one looking out for them,” he says.

Restaurateur Giorgio Alessio runs Scarborough’s Lanterna Ristorante, and holds a licence to buy fish directly from the harbourside fish market each day. He says he’s bought several small tuna in recent years.

“I think about half a dozen get tangled in the salmon nets each summer,” he says. “I remember everyone talking about it a few years ago, but now it seems to happen regularly. If the little tuna are out there, why not the big ones?”

Giorgio says he snaps up fresh tuna when he can as nothing can match it for flavour. He buys the small ones for a few pounds per pound – but what would a big bluefin cost?

In January of this year, a 593lb bluefin sold for an eye-popping 56.49 million yen at auction in Japan – that’s around £472,000, or £795 per pound. The respected American Bluefin Tuna Association was quick to denounce the sale as an expensive publicity stunt by the Japanese restaurateur who bought it, and pointed out that a more realistic price was around $12,000, or £12.60 per pound. But even at that price, Mitchell-Henry’s 851lb-er would fetch the not inconsiderable sum of £10,700. No wonder there’s continuing interest in the tunny.

For an account of the tunny fishing industry on the East Coast that’s as entertaining as it is meticulous, read Chris Berry’s Tunny – The Rise and Fall 
of Britain’s Biggest Fish (Medlar Press). And to see footage of a tunny actually being caught, take a look at the 
Yorkshire Film Archive website: