Frequently asked questions -- Updated January 1999
Why swordfish? Aren't other fish in trouble, too?
A lot of fish are in trouble. In fact, about 1/3 of U.S. marine fish populations whose status is known are overfished or approaching an overfished condition, according to federal government scientists. Swordfish is one of the most popular restaurant species that many chefs and consumers are familiar with, however it is emblematic of the problems facing marine fish, including ineffective management, overfishing, destructive gear, and bycatch. So, when we finally succeed in implementing adequate recovery measures for north Atlantic swordfish, it will be a model that may be replicated for other depleted fish.
Why North Atlantic Swordfish? Can we eat Pacific swordfish?
North Atlantic swordfish are severely depleted and may be commercially extinct within a decade if current trends continue, according to government analyses. Although good scientific data is lacking, swordfish populations elsewhere are generally not as depleted and are thus not the focus of this campaign. However, swordfish fishing in the Pacific and elsewhere has its own problems, including bycatch of endangered sea turtles, birds, whales, sharks and other marine life on longlines and in driftnets. Swordfish stocks elsewhere are not immune to over-fishing, and it may be only a matter of time before those populations begin to suffer the same fate as those in the north Atlantic. If we can develop an effective management plan for north Atlantic swordfish, we may be able to help swordfish elsewhere before they reach the same dire situation. It isn't always easy to find out where swordfish comes from, so ask. If the seller can't tell you, don't buy it.
Is this a boycott?
This is not a boycott; it's a break. A boycott implies that there is sonic single person or entity at fault, and that if certain demands are met tomorrow, the problem will be solved. This is not the case with swordfish. Everyone wants more swordfish. All of us; chefs, consumers, fishermen, the fishing industry, and government, will have to work together to find a solution. In the meantime, we must take a break to call attention to the need for swift government action.
What will be the impact on fishermen?
No single person or group is to blame for the severe depletion of the north Atlantic swordfish and no single person or group should bear the brunt of the burden for reversing the decline. Over the long term, bringing the swordfish population back to the level that can produce maximum sustainable yield will almost double the swordfish available to commercial fishermen, recreational fishermen, consumers, and the ocean environment, ultimately creating more jobs. Over the short term, targeted government support of fishing families who may be impacted, similar to that taken in New England when major fisheries have been closed or restricted, should be evaluated.
Is the solution that you advocate, unilateral action by the U.S. to protect swordfish, fair to U.S. fishermen?
Because the U.S. catches almost one third of the north Atlantic swordfish quota, we have both the responsibility to take aggressive conservation action and the opportunity to make a significant impact through action to restore swordfish in domestic waters. The U.S. can and must do more to restore swordfish domestically while promoting complementary international conservation action.
International action to protect swordfish IS important. It is indeed true that all nations fishing for north Atlantic swordfish should contribute to their restoration. The U.S. should take a leadership role at the 1999 International Convention on the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT, which also has responsibility for swordfish) meeting in securing overall quota cuts that will reduce fishing pressure to a level that will allow the population to recover within 10 years. In addition, the U.S. should secure international agreements to protect nursery areas wherever they exist, raise the minimum size limit, and take other actions to restore swordfish. However, U.S. conservation efforts should start immediately, including protecting nursery areas in U.S. waters. Such efforts will start swordfish on the road to recovery and put U.S. in a far better negotiating position to-argue for complementary international action. The U.S leads by example.
U.S.fishermen are likely to benefit from U.S. action to protect swordfish. Restoring the population back up to a level where it can produce the maximum sustainable yield will roughly double the amount of fish available for everyone, including U.S. fishermen. In addition, there is evidence that swordfish in the western north Atlantic tend to migrate up and down the North American coast, not back and forth across the Atlantic. Thus, the benefits of protecting nursery areas within U.S. waters may accrue more to U.S. fishermen than anyone else.
Haven't U.S. fishermen already taken big hits on quotas? Don't we play by the rules, unlike fishermen from other nations?
The U.S., like other nations, has had its quota reduced from 1980's levels under an international management program adopted in 1991, however, U.S. fishermen are catching about the same amount of swordfish now as they were 5 years ago.* Moreover, a recent international agreement reached in 1996 to further cut quotas for north Atlantic swordfish will actually result in an increase in tire amount of swordfish U.S. fishermen will be allowed to land over the next few years.** That agreement is aimed at stopping the decline. Whether it is more effective in doing so than previous cuts have been remains to be seen. More importantly, the goal should not just be to arrest the decline, but to restore the population to its former abundance so that consumers, commercial fishermen, recreational fishermen and the ocean environment may benefit.
Enforcement of international fishing agreements is a perennial and universal problem. Adoption of the 1995 UN fisheries agreement has the potential to dramatically improve international conservation and enforcement. The U.S. has ratified this treaty, but many other fishing nations have not. The U.S. needs to step up the pressure on other fishing nations to ratify and implement the treaty.
Why are you focused on longliners? Does it matter to the swordfish if one boat drops 600 hooks or 600 boats drop one hook into the water?
98% of north Atlantic swordfish are caught on longlines, and inevitably conservation measures will affect longliners. But others have suffered from the decline in north Atlantic swordfish, including the commercial anglers and recreational fishermen who used to target swordfish but are no longer able to do so due to the depletion of large swordfish. Ultimately all fishermen will benefit from restoration.
Longline vessels, which drop hundreds of hooks into the water at a time are largely incapable of discriminating between small and large fish. The majority of swordfish caught on longlines are juveniles, and in 1996, longliners discarded some 40,000 swordfish (most of which were dead) principally because the fish were under the minimum size. In addition, longlines (and drift gillnets) catch a wide variety of other marine life whose populations are low, including sharks, marlin, endangered turtles and other species. In contrast, harpoons target individual fish and are highly selective. Harpoons entail virtually no mortality of sublegal swordfish, non-target fish threatened or endangered species, protected marine mammals, or turtles. So it does in fact matter whether you have one longliner or 600 handgear fishermen.
Do fishermen, have other options? Can longliners and drift gillnetters fish for other species?
Longliners and driftnetters do regularly catch other species, as the gear is relatively non-selective. Unfortunately, however, many of these species, including bluefin tuna, marlin, and large coastal sharks, are also seriously depleted.
So why aren't you calling for an end to longlining and drift gillnetting?
Drift gillnetting for swordfish in the north Atlantic has been prohibited since the fall of 1996 due to concerns over interactions with marine mammals. For longlines, time/area closures, raising the minumum size , reducing the overall ICCAT quota, and other conservation measures are needed to begin to restore swordfish. If these measures prove to be ineffective, further restrictions on longlining will be necessary.
You've mentioned protecting nursery areas. Why aren't you advocating reducing the catch?
The most effective action the U.S. could take -- reducing the domestic swordfish quota -- is prohibited under a U.S. law that prevents the U.S. from doing anything that would increase or decrease the quota allocated to the U.S. by international agreement.
The U.S. should not be held hostage to international action and Congress should amend tile law to allow the U.S. to reduce its own quota when warranted as in the case of swordfish. Until that happens, the U.S. should play a leadership role in pressing for international measures to restore swordfish at the 1999 meeting of ICCAT. In addition. the U.S. can and must take action to protect swordfish in our own waters, including protecting nursery areas.
Have you talked with the swordfish fishing industry about this campaign? What do they say?
The fishing community is well aware of the concerns of the conservation community with respect to north Atlantic swordfish. And they acknowledge there is a problem. The head of the longliners' trade association is quoted in the February 1998 issue of National Fisherman, a trade magazine, as saying that swordfish stocks are "going down the tubes." The question is how to fix the problem. The longliners' trade association points to other countries as the source of the problem and has called for international action. We agree that international action is necessary, but also believe that the U.S. can do far more at home than it has to protect and restore swordfish.* 4190 metric tons in 1992 and 4148 metric tons in 1996, the latest year for which figures are available. These figures include discards.
** This is due to the fact that, consistent with ICCAT recommendations in 1995 and 1996, the U.S was obligated to reduce its total quota by the number of estimated dead discards. However, for 1997, the U.S. is not obligated to reduce the ICCAT quota to account for discards; therefore the 1997 U.S. quota recommended by ICCAT represents an actual increase of almost 8% in the total weight of swordfish available for landing as compared to the adjusted 1996 quota. The cumulative impact over 1997-1999 is a net gain of almost 2% over the 1996 adjusted quota. (62 FR 40040) Also, the U.S. negotiated an increase in the U.S quota from 24% in 1996 to 29% for the period 1997-1999.