Is there a better taste than a perfectly grilled swordfish steak, lightly seasoned, practically melting in your mouth? Hard to imagine any.
Swordfish, like other billfish and tuna, are apex predators. They are pandemic – pretty well everywhere – but they prefer water that is 18-22 degrees C. During the night they rise to shallower, warmer water; during the day they forage at greater depths. They migrate great distance seasonally, following both prey and preferred water temps.
In the 1990s swordfish, heavily fished around the world, seemed to be declining toward extinction. Now, with the exception of the Mediterranean stock, they aren’t: IUCN has recognized the Atlantic and Pacific stocks now as ‘adequately managed’ rather than ‘overfished’ as they used to be.
This is good news. How did it happen?
Starting in 1999, a lot changed, driven not surprisingly by the US market. It started with hundreds of chefs across the US, along with and the encouragement of SeaWeb, agreeing not to serve swordfish. They called their initiative ‘Give Swordfish a Break’, mobilized consumer support, sustained it for two and a half years, and stimulated a formal 10 year recovery plan that actually seems to have worked.
The decline of global stocks (again, the Mediterranean is the exception) has stabilized, and generally risen to levels that fisheries scientists think can be fished sustainably. The bycatch of endangered sea turtles, which used to be horrendous, has declined by about 90%.
So the new regulations are effective.
Quotas were reduced, and are reconsidered every year. Limited access to licenses now controls the size of the fishing fleets.
Minimum size limits of individuals caught should allow them to breed at least once before their final capture. Observers must be carried whenever requested, vessels are monitored by satellite tracking, and there are time and area closures, protecting breeding and juvenile fish. An impressive array of regulations.
Bycatch of sea turtles, the other great concern, has also been taken very seriously. Long-lines with their hundreds of hooks, the dominant method of fishing, must be set only at night, at appropriate depths. Length of long-lines cannot be greater than 20 nautical miles (!). Fishing ships must move away when endangered sea turtles are seen. Larger circle hooks, much less damaging to sea turtles are mandatory.
Altogether, swordfish appears to be a fine example of an environmentally responsible pelagic fishery.
Or is it? IUCN still designates the overall population as ‘declining’. The Mediterranean stock, like so much in that sad almost enclosed sea, remains overfished. Some of the global catch is also certainly unreported. And the average length that is caught commercially is 1.2 to 1.9 meters, which seems quite large – but 50 years ago far larger swordfish were still common.
So what should we do, knowing that we should thoroughly protect such marine apex predators rather than eat them? Faced with that grilled steak of a freshly caught swordfish, we’ll probably first swallow our misgivings, and then enjoy the extraordinary taste.
But swordfish are not really recovering – they just aren’t declining to oblivion any longer.