Swearing Off Swordfish

Marine Campaigns Spotlight Wasteful Fishing Practices

Thirty miles off Cape Cod, Dr. Carl Safina of the National Audubon Society’s Living Oceans Program and pilot Charlie Horton circle desert-like stretches of blue water in a single-engine Super Cub. Their object: to locate schools of bluefin tuna, 500- to 700-pound fish that are highly prized by commercial fishermen. As Horton spots a probable bluefin school, he also sees something else: fishermen. In addition to a small air force of fish locator “scout” planes, there are several harpoon boats, rod-and-reel vessels and a net seiner. The boats are alive with crackling electronic devices. The fishermen are using VHF radio reports, thermal sensors, sonar and other gadgetry to tell them exactly where the tuna are. In all, 10 boats had invaded the tuna’s territory, and according to Safina, “The fish had been found out.”

Super-efficient and high-tech fishing operations like this have taken their toll on the charismatic megafauna of the deep ocean. Migratory species like swordfish, sharks, marlins, sailfish and tuna are becoming dangerously depleted, and fishermen are reporting smaller and smaller catches of younger and younger fish. The highly competitive fishing industry also disrupts the entire oceanic food chain by indiscriminately catching and discarding billions of very young fish, sea birds, porpoises and other marine animals.

New York City’s sumptuous Felidia restaurant would seem an odd location to launch a campaign to save the oceans’ top predators. But last January, marine researchers joined a group ranging from top chefs to food critics and journalists to celebrate the swordfish by not including it on the menu. The “Give Swordfish A Break” campaign was convened by 38 pledge-taking chefs to draw consumer attention to the evocative Atlantic fish, which, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service, could be commercially extinct in 10 years.

Nora Pouillon, chef of Washington, D.C.‘s Nora and Asia Nora, says, “My fish purveyor was starting to offer me smaller and smaller swordfish from the North Atlantic, and I realized that we had already fished out the adults and were now consuming the teenagers.” The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) reports that the average swordfish caught in the 1960s weighed 266 pounds; today, they’re lucky to top 90.

The chefs’ campaign, sponsored by SeaWeb and the NRDC, centers on the use of 30- to 40-mile-long monofilament fishing lines that bristle with hundreds of baited hooks. Designed to float at the water depth which swordfish feed, the hooks inadvertently snagged over 40,000 juvenile swordfish last year (out of a total catch of 100,000), as well as thousands of sharks, endangered sea turtles and other imperiled species. While vessels are required to discard undersized swordfish and endangered species, most die after hours on these hooks—and are not counted in fishing quotas. “One of the central issues here is the catching of large numbers of fish before they can reproduce,” says NRDC Chief Policy Analyst Lisa Speer.

It’s these “longlines,” as well as fishing in nursery areas and using indiscriminate gear, that has one coalition—the Ocean Wildlife Campaign (OWC)—targeting commercial fishermen. Made up of the NRDC, World Wildlife Fund, National Coalition for Marine Conservation (NCMC) and Audubon, the OWC is urging the Fisheries Service to prohibit longline fishing in swordfish nursery areas, limit the size of longlines to 10 miles, count dead discards as part of the allowed quota, and emphasize non-lethal gear like “circle-hooks,” which are less lethal since fish don’t swallow them.

Despite the evidence, Nelson Beideman, executive director of the longliners’ Blue Water Fishermen’s Association, emphatically denies that longlines are the cause of the problem. “Atlantic fishermen are not overfishing swordfish,” he says bluntly. “What is happening here is a direct attack against commercial harvesters by the environmental community. The fact is that we’ve been reducing our catch of juveniles.” Beideman says that two-thirds of the 30 million pounds of swordfish consumed annually in the U.S. actually come from “relatively healthy” Pacific stocks.
Beideman points a finger at sport fishermen, but Jim Donofrio of the Recreational Fishing Alliance says that accusation is misplaced. “This fishery existed for over 150 years with sustainable gear like rods, reels and harpoons,” he says. “It wasn’t until 1963 when longlining was introduced that we saw a rapid decline in not just swordfish, but all our other migratory marine species.”

The good news, reports Ken Hinman of NCMC, is that if left alone, the swordfish will come back. “If you can take conservation measures that will protect the juveniles and reduce quotas by a sufficient amount, we can have recovery within 10 years. Recovery is possible for these fish. They’re relatively resilient.”

The swordfish, which can grow to over 1,200 pounds, live for more than 25 years and pierce wooden boat hulls with its saberish bill, is finally getting some much-needed attention. But the OWC stresses that sharks, tunas, marlins and sailfish are also flagrantly overfished and discarded overboard as “bycatch.” Each year, says Safina, fishing boats take in “an estimated 27 million metric tons of marine life that, dying or dead, are thrown overboard—a quarter of the whole global catch.” OWC Campaign Manager David Wilmot says, “Some populations of bluefin tuna have plummeted nearly 90 percent since the 1970s, and blue and white marlin have declined 60 to 80 percent. Several shark populations have declined 80 to 90 percent in U.S. waters during the past decade alone.”

Another problem is the lucrative market for some fisheries. An adult bluefin tuna may be the most valuable animal, pound for pound, on the planet. Stanford University marine biologist Barbara Block likens catching a bluefin to the risky and high-priced cocaine trade—if delivered to Tokyo’s sashimi market, a single fish can fetch up to $80,000, and lure fishermen to trail one for weeks. According to Safina, Japan is the largest consumer of bluefins, where most of the population passes through the wet floors of the 65-year-old Tsukiji Central Wholesale Market en route to sushi establishments.

So which seafood is safe to choose at the market? The World Wildlife Fund, along with the Unilever Corporation (the largest seafood distributor in Europe), has started the Marine Stewardship Council to certify fisheries products which are sustainable, and inform consumers with seal-of-approval labeling. SeaWeb Executive Director Vikki Spruill says, “We see this project as a way to get consumers directly involved in the overfishing crisis, and to begin to make food choices based on environmental reasons, not just health ones.”