The tunny fish

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Written by Jeannie Swales

Hard to believe now, but this was once a common sight on Scarborough sea front.

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 20s and through the 30s, Scarborough became a Mecca for big game fisherman keen to catch the glittering prize of a bluefin tuna – a spectacular, muscular member of the mackerel family. Millionaires and movie stars rubbed shoulders in the town’s hotels and in the Tunny Club on Sandside.

A particularly vivid account of tunny fishing is given by one of the town’s more famous sons, hotelier Tom Laughton, the 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 – sadly, the last recorded catch off Scarborough was in 1954.

This photograph is one of many in the Scarborough Collections, the name given to all the museum objects and art in the possession of the borough, and cared for by Scarborough Museums Trust.

The stamp which embossed the logo of the British Tunny Club in the top right-hand corner of the picture is also in the collections. For further information, please contact collections manager Jennifer Dunne on or (01723) 384510.