Britain’s waters have always contained tuna, but as a nation we largely ignored them until relatively recently. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that people started constructing special rods to catch these 500lb beasts, with a thriving fishing community growing in Scarborough.
There was a huge herring fishery on the east coast and tunny – as they were called then – would be fished both commercially and for sport as they chased the herring. I find this part of our fishing heritage fascinating, and anyone interested would do well to invest in a copy of either Tunny, or The Glory Days of the Giant Scarborough Tunny, which I often give as presents to my keen angling friends.
In the 1930s an annual event started during which film stars, industrialists and military heroes would come and fish from small wooden boats called cobles. Tied by a long rope to a herring trawler – so a giant hooked fish wouldn’t drag the angler into the depths of the ocean – these competitive fishers would sit in the boat dressed in tweeds with a big, thick split cane rod harnessed to themselves, a massive reel with a huge capacity of line, and await a nibble from their formidable quarry.
Young lads would toss herring into the water to attract the fish and the eager angler would sit patiently with a six inch herring baited to a hook. The rods and reels weren’t as sophisticated as modern day rods but they handled these giant predators; the size of these things is almost unbelievable, with the tunny, strung up from a winch, at least as long as their human predators.
By the 50s this exciting period of angling had come to an end, with post-war austerity hitting the leisure industry, and the herring gradually disappearing from the east coast. But they are coming back – bluefin are now spotted relatively frequently and you can find some great videos shot by local fishermen of huge numbers of them in feeding frenzies.
Three summers ago I was on my boat with some friends and their kids and in the distance we saw a huge fish rocketing straight out of the water. It wasn’t a dolphin, which we see plenty of here in Lyme Bay, this had the sleek, distinctive shape of a tuna, at least six feet long, in fairly shallow water less than half a mile off the beach. It was obviously chasing a shoal of herring, surprising them from beneath, which is why it looked like a big old missile.
I certainly didn’t get my rod out though; bluefin is protected in the UK, and anyone found fishing or selling them for human consumption may well find themselves spending Christmas at Her Majesty’s pleasure, not to mention having their boat confiscated.
I haven’t knowingly eaten bluefin since I saw the film The End of the Line, which is a pretty shocking expose on how Mitsubishi-owned factory ships were cleaning out stocks and freezing them at minus 40 degrees to preserve them. Currently the big eye, yellowfin and albacore aren’t on the endangered species list, but I’m conscious that if people stop eating bluefin, one of them will be next.
I’m a keen supporter of the Blue Marine Foundation, which made Lyme Bay the first protected marine reserve in the UK. It stopped boats trawling within eight miles of the shore and introduced open and closed seasons for scallops in certain areas; stocks are already showing signs of strengthening.
So who knows what the future holds? Back in the 30s people would pay the equivalent of £10,000 to fish for tuna off Scarborough – if numbers are up, maybe the future will see a return to catch-and-release sport fishing.
Mark is owner of a restaurant empire including Tramshed and Pharmacy 2