April 14, 1998
ISLIP, L.I. -- By 4 A.M., New York's Fulton Fish Market buzzes with people full-tilt into their workdays. Brightly lighted displays proffer fish from around the world. But nowadays, some customers think twice about buying one part of the catch: swordfish. Their reticence should make the fishing industry and its regulators pay attention.
The swordfish is a magnificent animal that can reach half a ton and undertake thousand-mile migrations. But because of fishing methods that kill too many younger fish, it may well be the fastest declining creature in the Atlantic. The United States National Marine Fisheries Service has warned that "the commercial fishery may not be viable in 10 years."
Pacific swordfish are doing better, but there, as in the Atlantic, lurks the other problem in fishing for swords: the methods kill large numbers of other creatures incidentally snagged in drift nets and long fishing lines.
Drift nets, the infamous 40-mile "curtains of death" that caught sea
creatures in enormous numbers, have been banned by the United Nations since
1992. Well, not quite -- regulations now limit the nets to a mile and a
half in length. More common now for catching swordfish are "longlines"
-- fishing lines baited with hundreds of hooks that can stretch 25 to 40
Until the 1960's nearly all swordfish were caught by harpoon, which took only adult fish and killed no other sea creatures in the bargain. But most swordfish harpooners are now out of business because few fish survive to grow large enough. Longliners in the American Atlantic discard, dead, about 40 percent of the swordfish they catch -- the fish are too small to sell.
In 1996 Atlantic swordfishers dumped 40,000 dead juvenile swordfish. Like a maladaptive parasite that kills its own host, longline depletion caused the amount of East Coast swordfish brought to port to plummet almost 60 percent from 1989 to 1996.
Swordfish are not the only animals being wasted. In the best-studied region, the North Atlantic, longliners discard 1 fish in 4, helping to deplete marlin, giant tuna and sharks. In the Pacific, thousands of albatrosses also get hooked annually and drown after grabbing longline bait. American longliners in most of the Pacific aren't required to use albatross-saving devices mandated in Alaska, New Zealand, Australia and the Antarctic. And the practice of killing sharks only for their fins, banned on the East Coast, is still allowed in Pacific Federal waters. That's inexcusable.
Who's in charge? A multinational fishing commission sets Atlantic quotas. It hasn't reduced catches enough to stop East Coast population declines. The National Marine Fisheries Service has authority within 200 miles of all American coastlines. It could, if made to feel inclined, restrict indiscriminate fishing gear or close areas where young fish congregate. The latter step would pay extra dividends -- young marlins and certain tunas use the same nursery areas as swordfish, so they too would be protected.
American swordfishers, who take a third of the North Atlantic catch, say that unilateral restrictions won't fix an international problem. But when only American boats stopped fishing in the 1970's because mercury levels in swordfish exceeded health standards, the fish bounced back in less than a decade.
The depletion and incidental kills involved in swordfishing also exists in some other fisheries. These problems are beginning to draw a public response.
Royal Caribbean and Celebrity Cruise Lines, being good mariners, have announced that they will deftly steer clear of swordfish; they've canceled 20 tons of orders. And more than a hundred top chefs and Bon Appetit magazine have pledged swordfish abstinence.
The take-home message for the fishing industry and its well-paid lobbyists and captive regulatory agencies is this: With management slow to end overfishing and reduce collateral killing, consumers are ready to respond, with their wallets.
If recovery plans are adopted, nursery areas closed and fishing gear made safer for young fishes, endangered albatrosses, dolphins and endangered turtles, seafood lovers will have less to be concerned about. Till then, swordfish everywhere might suggest: "Try the pasta."
Copyright 1998 by The New York Times