The Truth About Swordfish

Californians love swordfish!

Whether grilled, broiled, baked, poached or kabobed, swordfish is a favorite of first-time seafood initiates as well as enlightened conoisseurs. Swordfish's meaty texture and mild flavor are two reasons for its popularity. In addition to good taste, swordfish offers a low-fat, low-calorie choice for health-conscious consumers. And don't forget the heart-healthy benefits of swordfish: rich in omega-3 fatty acids and other vitamins and minerals.

Californians are doubly fortunate to have abundant supplies of California swordfish right outside their doorstep in the Pacific Ocean. In addition to our local swordfish catch, swordfish supplied to California restaurants, and throughout the United States, comes from fishing operations throughout the world.

Harvesting, processing, distributing and marketing swordfish to restaurants and retail markets in California, as well as throughout the U.S., support an economically valuable industry, providing employment for tens of thousands of Americans. This industry is proud to supply swordfish for the American table. Swordfish is truly an American dining tradition.

Recently, however, questions have surfaced about the health of swordfish populations and the effects of harvesting these fish. Two environmental organizations, joined by several east coast chefs, have launched a reverse marketing effort called "Give Swordfish a Break", soliciting restaurants and consumers to boycott North Atlantic swordfish. They argue that a boycott is necessary to protect and restore declining swordfish stocks, particularly in the North Atlantic.

What's the truth about swordfish? Here are facts to answer some common questions.

Swordfish Biology - Where are swordfish found?

The broadbill swordfish is a worldwide fish, found in all tropical to temperate oceans. Three main areas include the North Atlantic, South Atlantic, and Pacific Oceans. In the Pacific, swordfish range from Asia to the Americas and from northern waters off Alaska to the southern reaches of South America.

Swordfish concentrate in areas where food is abundant, along frontal zones where ocean currents meet to create turbulence and sharp temperature breaks. The Pacific Ocean has five major frontal zones where swordfish congregate, and these are where most fishing occurs.

California's Swordfish Fishery

Swordfish are fished by many countries, and fishermen use a variety of harvesting methods, including longline, gillnet and harpoon. California's swordfish catch is harvested with harpoons and short-length, large-mesh gillnets. Nets replaced harpoons as the prevalent method of catch in the late 1970's because of the gear's ability to provide a consistent catch in all oceanic conditions. This provides consumers with a steady supply of high-quality, locally-caught swordfish during season.

California's swordfish fishery is strictly regulated by the California Department of Fish and Game, with seasons and area closures as well as restrictions on gear. California swordfish fishermen typically deploy nylon nets with a mesh size of 20 inches, nearly as wide as an open car window. Nets are suspended 36-75 feet under water, greatly reducing interactions with other marine life. Beginning in the fall of 1997 (on the recommendation of fishermen), all California swordfish nets now carry accoustic "pingers" on both cork and lead lines. In extensive testing, the "pingers" were very successful in alerting whales and dolphins to the presence of the nets, thus reducing interactions to a rate approaching zero.

For harpooners, California's swordfish season begins when the big fish migrate close to shore on warm-water currents. California's gillnet season for swordfish and shark begins August 15 and continues to December 15 within 25 miles of the mainland. The fishery is closed inside 25 miles from mid-December through January to protect migrating gray whales. Legislation prohibits netting for swordfish or thresher shark within 75 miles of the mainland from February1 through August 14. California's swordfish are most abundant from October through the Christmas holidays.

Sustainable Swordfish Stocks

Because swordfish and tunas are worldwide travelers, classified as highly migratory species (HMS), international efforts are required to ensure their conservation. The United Nations (U.N.) oversees the international conservation and management of HMS through the Food and Agriculture Organization and regional scientific commissions, such as the Pacific-based Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC). Fishery scientists from these commissions monitor and assess highly migratory fish populations and provide a forum for harvesting nations to implement conservation measures.

Pacific Ocean Swordfish Stocks are healthy.

Scientists consider Pacific Ocean swordfish stocks to be in good condition. To sustain healthy Pacific swordfish stocks as well as other highly migratory species in the Pacific, the U.S. and other Pacific Rim countries are negotiating a long-term conservation and management plan. The U.S. is a signatory to the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, the U.N. accord on straddling fish stocks and highly migratory species, and the Majuro Declaration, all of which which foster international efforts to conserve and manage highly migratory stocks in the Pacific.

California's swordfish fleet, which has produced an average 2.3 million pounds a year for the last 20 years, has a small impact on Pacific swordfish stocks, yet California fishermen are the most strictly regulated of all Pacific Rim fleets.

What about North Atlantic Swordfish stocks?

In the Atlantic Ocean, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) monitors HMS stocks and allocates harvest quotas to individual fishing nations. In the U.S., the National Marine Fisheries Service implements ICCAT conservation measures for Atlantic HMS under a fishery management plan. American fishermen are strictly regulated and allowed to catch a limited number of swordfish annually. The U.S. harvest is closely monitored. In addition to limiting the number of fish, regulations also mandated a minimum size limit of about 46 inches. Supporting efforts to restore Atlantic swordfish stocks, U.S. fishermen have reduced their harvest of North Atlantic swordfish by more than 50 percent since 1989.

Prior to 1996, the ICAAT had not established an effective compliance program to ensure that nations honored their harvest quotas in the Atlantic. A few nations ignored their allotted quotas and minimum size regulations, resulting in overfishing. These few nations undermined conservation efforts in the Atlantic.

Recognizing this enforcement loophole, ICCAT officials established a formal compliance system. Beginning in 1997, countries that violate ICCAT conservation measures face substantial reductions in future quotas and possible multi-national trade sanctions. With stringent enforcement measures in place, the decline in North Atlantic swordfish stocks has been halted; fishery regulators look forward to an increase by 1999.

Who is behind the "Give Swordfish a Break" boycott?

In August, 1997, an organization of recreational fishermen began a campaign in North Carolina, urging restaurants to stop serving commercially-harvested swordfish. Big-game sportfishing advocates are actively lobbying to prevent commercial fishermen from supplying swordfish to seafood consumers. Such allocation conflicts are increasingly commonplace across the U.S.

In January, 1998, the multi-million dollar "SeaWeb" campaign and the Natural Resources Defense Council (responsible for the 1989 "Alar apple scare") jumped on the bandwagon, launching a reverse marketing effort called "Give Swordfish a Break," urging restaurateurs and consumers to boycott North Atlantic swordfish.

Does a swordfish boycott conserve fish stocks?

North Atlantic swordfish harvesting is already limited by ICCAT, with harvest quotas set by scientists to achieve long-term conservation of the stocks. Swordfish stocks in the Pacific are in good condition. An American swordfish boycott would not protect swordfish; rather, it would simply shift the swordfish supply to consumers in other countries, where swordfish also is popular.

In truth, a boycott accomplishes two ends:

  • it hurts fishermen and our seafood industry unnecessarily: fishermen are already strictly regulated;
  • it deprives American consumers from access to a desirable, healthy seafood.
But a boycott does virtually nothing to safeguard swordfish.

Is a boycott needed? Here's what fishery officials say:

"The "Give Swordfish a Break" campaign penalizes U.S. fishermen who are already abiding by the law, and it doesn't recognize that we have a rebuilding program in place (for North Atlantic swordfish)."

Dr. Rebecca Lent, Chief
Office of Highly Migratory Species
National Marine Fisheries Service

"The problem with the "Give Swordfish a Break" campaign is that it's misguided, harming fishermen who have been very compliant with U.S. and international quotas."

Mr. Scott Smullen
National Marine Fisheries Service

Confidence in Swordfish Conservation

In the Atlantic Ocean, international conservation measures have been strengthened. With a stringent enforcement program now in place, fishery regulators have halted the decline in North Atlantic swordfish stocks and look forward to an increase by 1999. According to scientists, Pacific Ocean swordfish stocks are in good condition; Pacific Rim countries are working toward international accord on long-term management. Fishermen recognize the importance of sustaining healthy swordfish resources. With international cooperation in the conservation of the ocean's resources, seafood consumers can be assured that swordfish will remain available for future generations.

For more information about swordfish, read "Fish Facts Swordfish".

(c) 1997 California Seafood Council