Restaurant diners who live by the swordfish may go hungry - for a while. Bringing attention to overfishing in the North Atlantic, prominent chefs on the East Coast are campaigning to "Give Swordfish a Break." So far, about 30 have formed a pact not to serve swordfish at their restaurants for at least a year.
"The important distinction is that this is a break, not a boycott," says Eric Ripert, head chef at La Bernadin in New York. "A lot of fish are in trouble; swordfish is emblematic of many species that are overfished ... or are approaching that designation," he adds.
Some restaurateurs have no interest in signing on, saying the campaign would punish US fishermen already abiding by government quotas.
According to "Break" organizers and the National Marine Fisheries Service, much of the swordfish population is underweight - sometimes too small or young to reproduce. The average catch weighs 90 pounds, down from more than 250 pounds in the 1960s. (The legal minimum catch weight is 44 pounds.) Public appetite for swordfish as well as more efficient fishing techniques (specifically "longlining," which involves long lines with hooks) threaten the population.
The US accounts for about one-third of the North Atlantic quota of swordfish, and organizers agree that an international "Break" effort is also needed.
The "Give Swordfish a Break" campaign is being sponsored by SeaWeb, a project of The Pew Charitable Trusts, and the Natural Resources Defense Council. The ultimate goal, say supporters, is to persuade the government to adopt a recovery plan that will restore the North Atlantic swordfish population to healthy levels within the next 10 years.
Nora Pouillon, owner of Nora and Asia Nora restaurants in Washington, D.C. calls the chefs' effort "not very radical, it's really for educational efforts." Known to support environmental efforts, Ms. Pouillon stopped serving swordfish five years ago. "The fish my purveyors have offered have become smaller and smaller," she explains. "This being the Year of the Ocean, people need to pay attention so we don't decimate our fish population," she adds.
The United Nations, which declared this year the International Year of the Ocean, adopted the swordfish as the symbol for marine creatures threatened by overfishing.
Several groups representing fisherman say that any "boycott" would serve little constructive purpose. "We support an international science-based approach as the only effective way to conserve and manage highly migratory species," says Nelson Beideman, executive director of Blue Water Fishermen's Association.
The National Fisheries Institute (NFI) has officially announced opposition to the campaign, saying that US fishery officials already imposed limits in 1989 which cut harvests in half and are now being enforced. In a prepared statement, Richard Gutting, Jr, executive vice president of NFI states, "In our view, the expert scientists and officials who are responsible for conserving these swordfish stocks and who have authorized their harvest, are better qualified to judge what is needed for conservation than the self-appointed advocates of this boycott campaign."