The Mighty Sword?
 As the boycotted fish migrate, the market remains in a muddle
Sheryl Julian
Link to NJ Fishing Consumer Alert page Link to NJ Fishing Consumer Alert page
The Boston Globe
September 30, 1998

As autumn spreads its chill, the hearty swordfish is preparing to depart the cold waters off Nova Scotia and swim south. During these last weeks along New England's coast, connoisseurs say the sword is as good as it gets: fat and flavorful after summer in our seas. 

This year, when the fish migrates, it won't be regret that fills the consumer. It will be relief. Out of sight, out of mind, says one chef. "I'm glad the season is coming to an end.''

What caused this sentiment is a high-profile conservation campaign for the swordfish. Targeted by environmental groups, it's the new poster fish for overutilized resources. A boycott of North Atlantic swordfish began last January, when the fish hadn't migrated this far north yet. Now, with the local season nearing its end (it has about a month to go), some chefs who honored the boycott are wondering if they did the right thing, responsible retailers are handing out position sheets, and consumers are left in a muddle. 

By all accounts, the "Give Swordfish a Break'' campaign, sponsored by SeaWeb and the Natural Resources Defense Council, raised an alarm. The boycott - effective in some arenas - was launched because the North Atlantic swordfish population is dwindling after years of losing its juvenile stocks. 

Not many chefs in this area took up the cause and most major retailers didn't go along with it, but one Maine wholesaler, who supplies top Manhattan tables, reports that he didn't have a call for swordfish all summer. 

Local fishermen felt the pinch. And it couldn't have come at a worse time, say the boycott's critics. Since demand for swordfish is higher than ever, imported fish are being bought up. When fishermen lose the chance to sell premium fish to high-end restaurants, the economic loss is dramatic. 
Anyway, they say, fishermen already comply with strict international conservation regulations and fight for their own quota reductions. They, more than anyone, want to see the waters filled with swordfish, otherwise they won't have a livelihood. 

"I am very sympathetic to that point of view,'' says SeaWeb's executive director Vikki Spruill. "The federal government has a responsibility to take care of families in that position.''

So what's going on out there in the big, bold sea? 

Everyone has an opinion. Fishermen's groups accuse the environmental organization SeaWeb, a project of the Pew Charitable Trusts, of having interests unrelated to conservation. SeaWeb says that the National Marine Fisheries Service and the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (known as ICCAT), regulators for the Atlantic's pelagic long-line fish - of which swordfish is one - are simply arresting the decline, not rebuilding the fisheries. Ecology-minded chefs and consumers worry about the unmarketable, juvenile fish that accidentally hook onto a long-line and die - known as by-catch to the fisheries and by-kill to the environmentalists. 

No one disagrees that these problems exist. All sides claim to be conservation-minded. And all agree that something had to be done to rebuild North Atlantic swordfish (the North Atlantic Ocean ends at the northeast corner of Brazil; Pacific swordfish is not in danger). When New England quotas have been met, some retailers, like Roger Berkowitz of Legal Sea Foods, buy swordfish from boats as far south as Florida. He won't bring in swordfish from South America. "It doesn't eat the same,'' he says. 

Less than 20 percent of swordfish consumed in the United States is caught in the North Atlantic, whose fishery was 750,000 pounds under quota last year, an amount that will be added to this fall's catch. 

The boycott might have raised awareness, "but it penalized fishermen who are trying to get the fishery rebuilt,'' says Rebecca Lent, chief of the highly migratory species division of the National Marine Fisheries Service. This US Commerce Department agency oversees our fishing boats and enforces regulations set by ICCAT. 

The targeting of our fishermen is what riles critics. SeaWeb is "taking the few producers who are left and hammering them into the ground,'' says John Wojtasinski of Atlantic Seacove, one of many wholesalers that supply swordfish to Foley Fish Co., Legal Sea Foods, and Bread & Circus, none of whom are participating in the boycott. 

Like all controversies, this one comes with its conspiracy theory. "This is not about conservation,'' says Nelson Beideman, executive director of Blue Water Fishermen's Association, based in Barnegat Light, N.J. 

Beideman represents the 200 active US fleets that harvest swordfish, tuna, sharks, and mahi-mahi. He insists that elite sport fishermen and major oil companies, in cahoots with SeaWeb, are trying to wipe out commercial fishermen to give recreational fishermen more catch. 

He understands conservationists who say that swordfish quotas must be enforced and that even with perfect compliance the stocks won't rebuild. Fisheries experts say that, given the chance, swordfish will replenish itself fairly quickly. 

"The rules are wrong,'' says SeaWeb's Spruill. She agrees that the fishermen are complying, but she calls the present regulations "woefully inadequate.''

"Guess what?'' says Beideman. "They are right. And we agree with them that more needs to be done.'' 

Lent says that at international meetings, US fishermen are "calling for quota cuts to rebuild the fisheries'' and have agreed to a 10-year plan under the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which is in draft form. Quotas are way down, she says, but they'll "cut quotas further in order to get [stocks rebuilt] in 10 years.''

Many experts say that when a nation goes over its quotas, no punitive measures are taken. "When a foreign country overfishes,'' suggests Beideman, "we should not accept that fish in our market.''

The international governing body for swordfish, ICCAT, sent warning letters to 23 nations that haven't complied with the quotas, including nonmembers Taiwan, Chile, Costa Rica, and Ecuador. Many point to Spain, an ICCAT member and the largest harvester of swordfish in the world. Coincidentally, ICCAT's headquarters are in Madrid. In addition to the letters, Lent says, quotas have to be checked again and again, so a threat of trade sanctions would probably have swifter results. 

About 275 restaurants, mostly on the East Coast, are participating in the boycott. 

Former restaurateur Jasper White, now the consulting chef for Legal Sea Foods, initially supported the campaign but says he is no longer doing so. "It's having a really bad effect on the fishermen,'' he says. "Chefs in New York don't live here. Swordfishermen are our neighbors.''

Berkowitz, Legal's owner, did not boycott swordfish and insists that "we never carried pups [juveniles]. If one thing comes out of this, it's that no one should be taking pups for whatever reason.''

"The average size caught today is 90 pounds,'' says SeaWeb's Spruill. The females of that size are too immature to reproduce. 

That's exactly what worries Sam Hayward, co-owner of Fore Street in Portland, Maine, where the menu is 60 percent fish. "I'm part of a community that includes the New England fishing community,'' he says, "but pups are being killed even if they're not being landed.'' 

Fishermen's advocate Beideman suggests consumers only buy swordfish caught by US, Canadian, or Japanese fishermen, the three countries he considers most responsible about quotas and regulations. 

For Wojtasinski, the wholesaler, the simple profile of a New Bedford fisherman from whom he buys swordfish brings the issue to life. "He's 1,500 miles from home in a 68-foot boat,'' says Wojtasinski. 

"It takes three days each way, he fishes for 20 days while the hurricanes go by. Then he comes in,'' after almost a month at sea, with a full catch. "He loads 10,000 gallons of fuel, a month's worth of groceries, and ice. And he turns around. The risks are very, very high in October. Boats do it because they'll survive another year. It forces people to take chances they might not ordinarily take. 

"If everybody's not equally conserving,'' says Wojtasinski, "other fishermen from other countries will benefit. The fish are going to be caught. Trust me.''

This story ran on page F01 of the Boston Globe on 09/30/98. 

© Copyright 1998 Globe Newspaper Company. 

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