Historical Recording of Yorkshire Fishes

Very few naturalists have shown an interest in the fishes, or indeed the marine-life generally, occurring on the Yorkshire coast, and there has never been any previous project to daily monitor the catches of the commercial fleet, the only way to constantly access the off-shore species, or to extend observations over a long period. Many species had previously been overlooked, and the true status and frequency of others, both resident and visiting vagrants, was unknown.

Previous observers include Meynell and Rudd, in the early and mid 19th century, while somewhat later, at Scarborough, the wealthy banker J. W. Woodall, who probably had a deeper interest in fisheries than banking, fitted his private steam vessel, 96 feet long and called the “Garland”, with a 25 foot beam trawl, to carry out his own private research. Thomas Stephenson, the curator of Whitby Museum from 1880 to 1916, gathered some interesting information from the activities of the fishing boats there, while at Flamborough, Matthew Bailey and John Cordeaux also took a brief interest in fishes, and at Bridlington, Thomas Boynton noted some interesting occurrences. A naturalist at Scarborough, W.J.Clarke, well known locally because of his keeping of a large boa-constrictor, had made a few scattered observations on fishes, but had no persistant interest or contact with the fishing fleet.

In the 1920’s, however, two young brothers, D. G. and J. A. Stephenson, became interested in local marine life and became friendly with the Scarborough steam trawler crews, providing some of the trawlers with containers of formalin in which to deposit items of interest. Their energetic activities in turn stimulated the fish-market superintendant, F. D. Taylor, to look out for interesting captures landed by the fleet.

The records arising from the Stephenson brothers and Taylor, renewed Clarke’s interest in marine fish, and also coincided with the gossip around the harbour about the tunny-fish being seen off-shore, with a reward subsequently being offered by a sea-front business man for one of the huge fish to be brought ashore. On September 7th 1929, the steam-drifter Ascendant, whose crew, like those of many other steam drifters, had been harpooning the big fish as a pastime, brought in one of the tunnies, hanging over her port bow, in order to claim the reward. With this first tangeable proof of the fish to come into a Yorkshire port, Clarke began a series of articles for the angling press on the presence of the big-game fish off the Yorkshire coast, and for this valuable contribution in helping to bring the attention of the wealthy big-game anglers to the resort and the availability of the sport on its doorstep, was subsequently given a citation and a miniature gold tunny by the Harbour Commisioners.

The Stephenson brothers work, however, was brief, and they emigrated to Canada, and shortly after, Taylor retired from his job and contact with the fish market due to ill health. Clarke, or “Old Fuzzy” as he became known to the steam drifter and trawler-men of Scarborough, continued to record the landings of the tunny and other captures of the fleet, through the 1930’s and also became fascinated with the occurrence of unusual squid which appeared in the area about this same time.

Following his efforts to secure an 18 feet long specimen of the giant squid, Architeuthis, which came ashore in perfect condition in the middle of the South Bay at Scarborough, only to be jumped upon and generally mauled by the crowd that assembled around it, Clarke was honoured by having the squid named after him by Robson, the cephalopod expert at the British Museum, where the specimen is today preserved in alcohol. In 1944, shortly before his death, Clarke published the “List of Yorkshire Marine Fishes” a brief summary but of little detail, and which further contains many inaccuracies and omissions, and following which the observation of fishes occurring along the Yorkshire coast became totally neglected.

The present ongoing survey is, therefore, historically the only project on the NE coast to have daily monitored the frequency of fishes, including not only the rarer, more exotic species, including oar-fish, blackfishes, opah and sturgeon, but also those which are well-known to the fishermen, such as the red-mullet, dory, and the shads, together with those which are less frequent, such as the various sea-breams and Ray’s bream.

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