Big Game Tuna Fishing in Britain

In the first half of the twentieth-century bluefin tuna were relatively common in the North Sea, attracted by the huge shoals of herring which were present there. This led to a big game fishery for tuna being established in the area and North Sea tuna fishing became a fashionable pursuit. Rich and famous people of the time came to the area on specially arranged trains from London, while others sailed directly to Scarborough and Whitby in yachts, turning the area into something resembling modern-day Monaco in the summer and early autumn. Reports from the time state that Hollywood actors such as David Niven, Errol Flynn, John Wayne and Charles Loughton all reportedly visited to take part in tuna fishing, as did Walter Edward Guinness of the Guinness brewing dynasty and members of the wealthy Rothschild family along with luminaries and senior figures from the world of business, politics and the military.

Related article: Atlantic Bluefin Tuna

Peak Years of Tuna Fishing

The peak years of Scarborough and Whitby North Sea tuna fishing were from the late 1920s until the early 1950s, although this was interrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War. Anglers would use wooden greenheart rods, large multiplier reels and thick twine line to target the tuna, fishing from small boats which had been towed out to sea by larger yachts.

 756lb tuna caught off Scarborough
A 756lb tuna caught 30 miles off the coast of Scarborough by Lieutenant A. H. Terry, R.N on 17th August 1934.

When a tuna was hooked it would be allowed to make runs to tire itself out, and on many occasions the tuna would drag the small boat around for a period of time before the angler on board attempted to reel it in. The size of tuna caught from Scarborough and Whitby was remarkably consistent, with tuna of at least 700lb caught every single summer from the emergence of the big game fishery in the late 1920s until 1939 when the Second World War began and put a halt to the tuna fishing. In the post-war years, tuna fishing returned to the region, with notable tuna being caught from Whitby and Scarborough until well into the 1950s.

Record Catch

Lorenzo Cecil Vaughan Mitchell-Henry with his 851lb bluefin tuna.
Lorenzo Cecil Vaughan Mitchell-Henry with his 851lb bluefin tuna.

Lorenzo Cecil Vaughan Mitchell-Henry caught a 851lb bluefin tuna when fishing from Whitby in 1933, setting a record which still stands as the biggest-ever fish caught on rod and line in UK waters which is recognised by the The British Record (Rod Caught) Fish Committee, although larger tuna have ben caught and released in more recent times. Mitchell-Henry, the son of the wealthy Liberal Party MP Mitchell Henry, was a pioneer of big game fishing, catching tuna weighing hundreds of pounds in North American waters and then transferring his skills and knowledge to the tuna found in the North Sea when he returned to Britain. Mitchell-Henry claimed to have hooked over one hundred tuna, but said that due to the fighting power of the fish he was only successful in landing ten of them, underlining the difficulty of catching tuna with the quality of fishing tackle available at the time. He later developed his own fishing tackle range in order to provide anglers with suitable equipment to land large tuna.

It appeared that Mitchell-Henry’s record had been beaten in 1949 when John Hedley Lewis, a farmer from Lincolnshire, caught a tuna weighing 852lb – just one pound heavier than Mitchell-Henry’s record catch. But Mitchell-Henry was able to successfully claim that a soaking wet rope was used to suspend Hedley Lewis’s tuna from a frame as it was weighed. It was eventually agreed that the rope would have added additional weight to the tuna and Hedley Lewis’s fish was not accepted, meaning that Mitchell-Henry retained his record. Today Mitchell-Henry’s 851lb tuna remains the largest fish listed by the British Record Fish Committee as being caught in British waters. In 1947, Dr Bidi Evans caught a 714lb tuna, a record which still stands as the UK’s women’s record rod and line caught fish.

Decline and Potential Return

While big game tuna fishing continued after the Second World War it had begun to decline by the early 1950s, with the last notable catch of a large tuna from Scarborough being reported in 1954. The reason for the decline is usually stated as being the increasing efficiency of commercial fishing which led to huge declines in stocks of North Sea mackerel and herring. As this was the natural prey of bluefin tuna the absence of these species led to bluefin tuna moving southwards and out of the North Sea to find new sources of prey. However, new evidence has suggested that the tuna may have been present in the North Sea due to a phenomenon known as the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (AMO). This is a naturally occurring cycle which see sea temperatures warm and then cool over sixty to one hundred years. It may be the case that when the North Sea tuna fishery was thriving there was a positive AMO in the North Sea which warmed the waters and attracted tuna to the region. From the 1950s onwards the AMO may have turned negative, leading to cooler seas and leading to the absence of tuna in UK waters.

Recent years have seen tuna return to British waters, with bluefin tuna up to 900lbs (larger than Mitchell-Henry’s record catch) being caught since 2010. The reasons for the tuna’s return are unknown but may be related to warming sea temperatures or the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation turning positive once again. This has led to calls for a recreational catch-and-release tuna fishery to be established in Britain – read more here.