The Real Price of a Swordfish Steak

The next time you sit down at your favorite restaurant, think twice about ordering the swordfish. For many Americans, swordfish still evoke images of those magnificent, leaping giants that were frequently depicted on old sportfishing shows. But these fish are all but gone from the North Atlantic. The average weight of a North Atlantic swordfish caught today is around 90 pounds, down from more than 260 pounds just 30 years ago.

What's happened to these great fish? With increased, year-round demand for swordfish steaks in this country and abroad, the majority of large fish have been caught, butchered, and served up as meals. Now the commercial fishing fleets, in a frenzy of shortsightedness, are catching smaller juvenile fish that are too young to breed.

Smaller and smaller fish

Like most top marine predators, swordfish are slow to reproduce. The females don't reach sexual maturity until they're about five years old and weigh roughly 150 pounds. But today, the majority of swordfish landings off the United States consist of immature fish weighing less than 100 pounds. As a result of these practices, the overall breeding population of North Atlantic swordfish has declined by more than half over the past three decades.

The steady disappearance of these fish not only takes a toll on the marine ecosystem, but on fishermen as well. East Coast landings of swordfish fell roughly 60 percent between 1988 and 1995, with a commensurate loss in income for fishermen during roughly the same period, totaling many millions of dollars. At this rate, it won't be long before there are neither swordfish nor fishermen to catch them.

There is still time to save these spectacular animals. To do this, however, the National Marine Fisheries Service shouldn't delay in adopting a recovery plan for swordfish that protects their nursery areas at critical times of the year; substantially raises the minimum size of swordfish that can be caught to a level that enables them to breed at least once; requires that all undersized fish as well as other nontarget species brought on board alive be released alive; and imposes strict import restrictions on undersized fish to encourage other nations to comply with international conservation methods.

In addition, the US should insist that stronger international standards be adopted related to the taking of swordfish in international waters, including an increase in the minimum size of fish that can be taken, reductions in catch levels, and protection of spawning and nursery areas.

Ironically, the US currently is restricted from reducing the number of swordfish that can be taken in US waters by having to comply with catch levels set by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), the entity charged with setting worldwide quotas on these fish.

By law, the US government must actually ensure that these catch levels are met, even if they are so high as to exacerbate the decline of swordfish here and elsewhere in the Atlantic.

Stronger actions needed

This unacceptable situation shouldn't be allowed to continue. The US should not be held hostage to an international organization that has a nearly unbroken record of failing to protect the fish under its jurisdiction. Congress should take steps to enable the US to take stronger measures to protect these animals than those advocated by ICCAT.

In a recent announcement, several national environmental groups, together with a number of prominent chefs throughout the country, called on the American public to stop buying North Atlantic swordfish from stores and restaurants until adequate recovery measures are adopted.

This is a problem that consumers can do something about. By sending a clear message in the marketplace that the public will not continue to support fishing practices that lead to the further decline of this great fish, we can help assure that our children and grandchildren will be able to appreciate both the taste and awesome spectacle of one of the ocean's most magnificent creatures.

* Joshua Reichert directs the environment program at the Pew Charitable Trusts in Philadelphia.

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