Andrew Pilgrim

Bluefin Tuna off Clacton?

Ok, I can hear you all laughing but read on, you may be surprised.

First I’d like to tell you about the amazing creature that is The Atlantic Bluefin Tuna.

Unfortunately I can’t as I have never even seen one never mind caught one so what follows is taken from where you can read further about this amazing creature.

Atlantic Bluefin Tuna (ABFT) are the largest of all the Tuna and can grow to over 700kg, (1,500lbs), and live for up to fifty years. They can attain speeds of 70kph and dive to depths of over 1000 metres. They undertake great migrations each year, some on a par with those other great ocean travellers, Blue Whales.

Perhaps the most important characteristic of the Thunnus tribe, and the one that most often surprises people, is that they are Warm Blooded. Crucially, in addition to this, the “True Tunas” all have an ability to control their body temperature, a capability found in a very small number of fish, including some Billfish and Shark species.

Tunas do not ‘flap’ their gills, but in common with billfish and some shark species, rely upon constant motion to pass water over their gills. The gills of Bluefin are huge in relation to their size. TEN TIMES larger than those of Rainbow Trout (kg for kg). They are also incredibly thin. This huge surface area allows them to extract 50% of the Oxygen present in the water that flows across their gills, a phenomenal feat. Humans only extract 25% of the oxygen that is present in the air we breathe.

They have an ability to tense their red muscles, stiffening their body. This accentuates the power transfer of their white muscle, designed for high speed bursts. This means that at anything over a low cruising speed their bodies do not move sinuously like most fish, but instead the large tail, or caudal fin oscillates at phenomenal speeds, providing great thrust.’

So, amazing creatures don’t you think?……….   “But aren’t they exotic tropical fish?” … NO!

The Atlantic Bluefin Tuna has a fantastic range from the Gulf of Mexico up to Canada in the Western Atlantic and more interestingly, for us, in the Eastern Atlantic they are found from the coast of Morocco, in the Mediterranean and up the coast of Spain and France and……. Wait for it…. The UK. In fact they are also seen in numbers off the west coast of Ireland , Scotland and are currently being studied in the waters around Norway and Denmark. In British waters the largest numbers are seen down in the West Country, often seen hitting bait fish less than a mile from shore. Regarding the English Channel, verifiable reports have come in of sightings off Brighton, fish washed up in Chichester harbour and interestingly some ‘bycatch’ washed up on a beach near Folkstone! Lets put all these on a map.

So as we can see Bluefin have almost encircled the whole of the British Isles, and it gets a little more interesting if we look back in time. In the 1800s a large commercial Bluefin fishery existed in Denmark with many fish being caught each season using long lines and nets. Some of these fish were reported to be in excess of 800lb.

A Danish fish market of the past

Also you may not be aware that back in the 1920s onward there was a thriving Big Game fishery for Tuna in the Uk, known back then as Tunny. This attracted the rich and famous from around the world who flocked to the East Coast of Yorkshire to sample the world class fishing on offer. Celebrities such as John Wayne, Errol Flynn and David Niven Charles Loughton, Walter Edward Guinness of the Guinness brewing dynasty and members of the wealthy Rothschild family amongst others were regular visitors to Scarborough on their huge yachts.

The wealthier tourists included Lady Annie Yule, “said to be the richest heiress in the empire”. She arrived with her daughter on their 1,574-ton luxury steam yacht Nahlin, which had 12 bathrooms and a gym. It’s now owned by Sir James Dyson, who is probably richer, with £7.8 billion. Boats working out of Scarborough and Whitby took the sporting gentry of the day out to pit their skills, and tackle, against these powerful fish. The rods were hickory, bamboo, lancewood and greenheart. The large Centerpin reels were loaded with strong twine. Once a fish was hooked the angler would ‘decamp’ into a smaller boat and the fish would tow them around, often for hours. Only when the Tuna was tired out would the fish be brought to the boat. .

Just look at that tackle!!

 In 1932, on the Dick Whittington trawler, Harold Hardy of Cloughton Hall battled with a 16ft tuna for over seven hours until his line snapped. Four observers described the struggle as “the greatest fight they had ever seen in their lives”.  

 Many fish to 700lb+ were caught every year and things reached a peak in 1933 when, fishing out of Whitby the delightfully named Lorenzo Cecil Vaughan Mitchell-Henry caught a Bluefin Tuna weighing 851lb, which is still the record for the heaviest fish caught in British waters.

 After a break from 1939 -1945, whilst European countries had a bit of a squabble, the fishing resumed and fish were caught up to the early 1950s. Why the fish stocks declined after this time is attributable to two main factors. The increased efficiency of the commercial fishing boats in the North Sea depleted the stocks of Herring and Mackerel, their main food source, so the Tuna moved elsewhere to forage. In addition to this there is something at play called The Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (AMO) which basically speaking is a cyclic change in water temperature affecting our shores every 20-80 years or so which some think may be partially responsible for the disappearance of the Bluefin and their subsequent return in the last few years helped by the increasing amount of baitfish available round our shores. Indeed Bluefin are caught in increasing numbers each year by charter boats in the West Country ‘accidentaly’ whilst targeting other species such as sharks. At this point I’m sure that a few Essex Anglers have run out to their sheds looking for the old 80lb class gear and the spool of 120lb braid they bought years ago for a Tope fishing trip with John Rawle in 1998 that never happened but hold your horses.

 I say caught ‘accidentally’ as it is currently illegal to fish for or land a Bluefin Tina in this country due to their protected status which you can read more about here

What are the chances of re-establishing a Big Game Bluefin fishery in the UK? To find out I spoke to the man behind Bluefin Tuna UK,  Steve Murphy, who was most helpful indeed. This is what he had to say…

AP……….With all the Bluefin appearing down the west country over the last few years how close are we to having a serious recreational fishery for Tuna in the UK?

SM ………We have been working on a recreational Catch and Release fishery for two years now, it was always tough without quota. We (BFT UK, Angling Trust, representatives of about 65 charter skippers, a number of clubs) were involved in a consultation Sept-November with DEFRA and CEFAS to look at the possibility of an Irish style research fishery across the Channel from Dover to Lands End in 2021. Phase 1 went well, and phases 2 starts next week. We can’t really talk about that too much as we are awaiting sight of the official report to agree with DEFRA and then issue a joint press statement in the very near future. I am cautiously optimistic we will have a legal framework for some kind of Bluefin fishery this year, and beyond… Fingers crossed, more work to do…..

AP ……………What is the likelihood of Bluefin Tuna appearing in the Thames Estuary?

SM…….   “BFT COULD, in theory, move through the straits of Dover into the lower North Sea, or they could come South from the North. I think the biggest constraint for the southern North Sea is water clarity. Way offshore there are areas of cleaner water but not consistently enough to make good long term habitat for Atlantic Bluefin.”

A…… So why were they reported recently in off the Kent coast?

SM ………”When they ran much further East up the Channel last year, we think it was for very specific reasons. Basically we had a bunch of ‘Atlantic’ water able to penetrate much further East than usual, hence the fish washed up in Chichester Harbour, bycatch off Folkestone dumped that wound up on the beach there, and sightings off of Brighton etc…. I wouldn’t bet more than a few quid that they repeat that consistently. This was a specific situation with the collapse of a front that often acts as a barrier.”

AP …….So no chance of seeing them in the Thames Estuary and beyond then?

SM …… “I would never say never, but I think if you want to consistently encounter them, it’s really West of Start Point where the concentrations are the last five years. The chances of fish up towards the Wash et are slim, not non-existent, but slim I would think….”

So there we have it Bluefin Tuna off Clacton?  Improbable but not impossible, highly unlikely but not beyond the realms of possibility, Who knows what will happen over the next few years and decades.

I will leave you with this one further little titbit for the local Thames Estuary anglers.  In his writings on the History of British Tuna fishing, Mike Thrussell the well-respected angling author, journalist and tackle consultant notes that “ In 1928 a massive 1000lber washed up on a mud bank at Walton-on-the-Naze, Essex”

Food for thought?

For more information on this fascinating fish and the ongoing fight to set up a UK recreational fishery please visit here and support them in anyway you can.

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