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 big game fishing for tuna from Whitby and Scarborough becoming a fashionable pursuit in the 1920s and 1930s, attracting the wealthy and famous people of the day to the hotels in the area in the summer and early autumn months. Film star Charles Loughton, Walter Edward Guinness of the Guinness brewing dynasty and members of the wealthy Rothschild family all visited to take part in big game tuna fishing off the North Yorkshire coast.

Peak Years of Tuna Fishing

The peak years of Scarborough and Whitby North Sea Tuna fishing were from the late 1920s until the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. Specially arranged trains from London would be put on to transport the rich and famous to Scarborough for the big game tuna fishing, but some sailed directly to the North Yorkshire coast on yachts, turning Scarborough and Whitby into something resembling modern day Monaco in the warm summer months. Reports from the time state that Hollywood actors such as David Niven, Errol Flynn and John Wayne all reportedly visited to take part in the tuna fishing, along with luminaries and senior figures from the world of business, politics and the military.

 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.

Fishing would often take place from a small boat which was towed out to sea by one of the yachts. Fishing tackle was very different to that used by anglers today with wooden greenheart rods and thick twine line being the equipment used to catch the tuna. When a tuna was hooked it would be allowed to make runs to tire itself out, and on many occasions the tuna would effectively drag the small boat around for a period of time before the angler on board attempted to reel it in.

Related article: Atlantic Bluefin Tuna

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 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. 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.

However, it appeared that Mitchell-Henry’s record had been beaten in 1949 when John Hedley Lewis, a farmer from Lincolnshire caught a tuna weighting 852lb – just one pound heavier than Mitchell-Henry’s record catch. But Mitchell-Henry was able to successfully claim that the tuna Hedley Lewis had caught was weighed inaccurately, as a soaking wet rope was used to suspend the 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 as a new record meaning that Mitchell-Henry’s 851lb tuna reamins the British record tuna catch to this day. 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.


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.

Return of Tuna to British Waters

Bluefin Tuna
There is clear evidence that bluefin tuna are returning to UK waters in significant numbers. © tonobalaguer / 123RF Stock Photo.

Recent years have seen Bluefin tuna return to British waters in a big way (possibly because we are undergoing a positive AMO once again). The Times newspaper has reported that there were over five hundred sightings of tuna in British waters from 2013 to 2018, with a number of tuna reaching the same sizes as those caught in the golden years of the North Sea big game fishing era. These tuna have been found all around the UK and have included a 770lbs tuna caught by a commercial fishing vessel off the coast of Devon, a 500lb tuna caught by a boat angler off the Welsh coast and a 600lb tuna found trapped in a fish pen in a Scottish fish farm. A two-year project named Thunnus UK, a collaboration between Exeter University, Cefas and Stanford University in the US, has also been launched to study and understand the increasing number of bluefin tuna in British waters.

Potential Return of Big Game Tuna Fishing to the UK

With such large tuna back in British waters the question has been asked if a recreational fishery for bluefin tuna, either in the North Sea or elsewhere in UK waters, be re-established? The Angling Trust (the representative body for anglers in the UK) certainly think so. They have proposed a licenced catch-and-release sport fishery for tuna around the UK, saying that the return of bluefin tuna to UK waters represents a “one-in-a-generation” opportunity for such a fishery to be re-created.

An article in the i newspaper stated that a successful tuna fishery could be established in Cornwall or Wales. Tuna caught by this fishery (which would of course be released alive) would be worth £25,000 to £30,000 per tuna, when the economic value of tourism, charter boat fees, fishing tackle hire and hotel accommodation were factored in. This compares to £3,000 per tuna caught and killed by commercial fishing operations. The Angling Trust state that anglers could also help with research into the distribution and movement of bluefin tuna in UK waters by tagging tuna which they catch and then release, and that establishing such a fishery, rather than allowing commercial fishing operations to catch the tuna “represents the best way of ensuring a future that works best for the fish, the science, and the local communities.”

However, there are a number of major issues which would need to be overcome before any kind of recreational tuna fishery could ever become a reality. The first issue is the endangered status of bluefin tuna. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature class bluefin tuna as endangered on a global basis, with a decreasing population trend. This means that many conservation groups such as Greenpeace are steadfastly opposed to any kind of fishery for tuna, and draw little distinction between an ultra-low impact catch-and-release rod and line tuna fishery and a highly efficient commercial fishing industry which seeks to catch and sell tuna for profit.

Another major issue preventing is EU rules on tuna quotas. At the time of writing [early 2019] the UK is still a member of the European Union and is set to follow EU fisheries rules until 2020. Despite the endangered status of bluefin tuna the EU allows eight nations (Spain, France, Croatia, Italy, Greece, Portugal, Malta and Cyprus) to catch a quota of almost 16,000 tons of bluefin tuna per year, with France, Italy and Spain receiving the majority of the quota. As the UK has not been allocated any quota British commercial fishermen and recreational anglers are not allowed to target bluefin tuna and any which are inadvertently caught must by law be returned to the sea unharmed. Indeed, the rules are so strict that anglers have been warned that if they do accidentally catch a tuna then the fish should not be brought on board to be photographed but must be cut loose from the line when still in the water.

This is a consequence of Britain no longer controlling its own fishing waters due to the Common Fisheries Policy and the British government currently has no power to control or manage tuna stocks in UK waters. The perceived unfairness of this situation was highlighted in 2018 when French fishermen came into British territorial waters off the coast of Jersey and caught forty-four bluefin tuna – fish which UK fishermen are barred from catching. Clearly a British tuna fishery, regardless whether it was recreational or commercial, would only be able to take place once the UK has left the EU and no longer has to follow Common Fisheries Policies rules.

Instead, as an independent coastal state the UK would be able to join ICCAT (the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas – the intergovernmental organisation responsible for managing and conserving tuna and tuna-like species) and secure its own share of bluefin tuna to catch in a way the UK government decided. Although, as discussed below, there are no guarantees that Brexit negotiations would end with the UK taking back full control of its waters or gaining quota to catch tuna.

Related article: Brexit and Britain’s Fisheries

Related article: Tuna, Conservation and ICCAT

There is certainly political support for recreational tuna fishing in UK waters to be re-established. The Angling Trust and Bluefin Tuna UK launched a campaign at Westminster to promote a UK sport fishery for bluefin tuna and were supported by MPs such as North Cornwall’s Scott Mann. Mr Mann said: “It would be a massive boost to our coastal communities if the government was to take up these proposals and allow local anglers to enjoy world class catch and release big game fishing right on our doorsteps.”

Michael Creed
Michael Creed

In February 2019 the campaign to allow recreational fishing for tuna in British waters was given a huge boost when it was announced that Ireland had gained approval from the EU to allow anglers to catch and tag tuna for scientific research. Michael Creed, Ireland’s Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine stated that an agreement had been reached which would “allow countries like Ireland, that do not have a commercial bluefin tuna quota, to operate a catch-tag-release fishery for gathering scientific data.” He stated that the details of the catch-and-release prgramme would be worked out over the coming months. While it has been stressed that the programme involves Irish anglers taking part in scientific research, and not recreational fishing for its own sake, UK anglers will be encouraged that anglers can gain the right to catch tuna despite the nation having no commercial quota for the species, and many British-based anglers will be keen to volunteer to take part similar programmes organised by the UK government.

The Future of Tuna in UK Waters

In early 2021 there were reports throughout the media that tuna fishing could be allowed off the south coast of England. This would be possible as the UK is now free of EU regulations which prevented British vessels from targeting tuna and ICAAT (International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas), the inter-governmental organisation which oversees tuna fishing has given Britain a quota of fifty tons. Stuart Singleton-White of the Angling Trust said that the re-establishment of a British tuna fishery represents the chance “to do something that is absolutely unique to us, and where we can show real leadership on how to sustainably manage a bluefin tuna fishery and really maximise the benefit for coastal communities.” However, environmental groups such as the Blue Marine Foundation and Wildlife Trust registered their opposition, saying that tuna stocks were still too low to begin fishing for this species, even on a catch and release basis.

The prospect of a recreational catch-and-release tuna fishery, like the one which existed in the 1920s and 1930s, being re-established in British waters, therefore, remains a possibility, but there will be much more debate and discussion before anglers will once again be able to catch bluefin tuna in British waters.