North Atlantic Swordfish on Track to Strong Recovery

John Pickrell
for National Geographic News
November 1, 2002

North Atlantic swordfish populations, which had been severely depleted by the 1990s as a result of overfishing, have staged a stunning recovery, reports an international regulatory group charged with overseeing their protection.

Most remarkable is the fact that the recovery occurred in just three years. A 10-year conservation plan placing strict limits on commercial fishing of the species was imposed in 1999.

North Atlantic swordfish have multiplied to such an extent that biologists say the population has reached the 94 percent mark of the number needed to guarantee their survival and allow controlled commercial fishing to continue indefinitely.

"This is good news for those who care about the long-term health of the North Atlantic swordfish," said Bill Hogarth, director of fisheries at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

David Wilmot, director of the Ocean Wildlife Campaign, concurs.

"The new assessment of the status of the North Atlantic swordfish population indicates that efforts to recover the population are working and rebuilding is ahead of schedule. This is great news," he said.

The Ocean Wildlife Campaign, a coalition of environmental groups that includes the Wildlife Conservation Society, the World Wildlife Fund, and the National Audubon Society, has lobbied hard to protect the species.

The preliminary assessment was issued by a working group of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT) at a meeting held in September in Madrid. ICCAT was formed in 1969 under a treaty designed to protect populations of tuna, swordfish, marlin, and other large oceangoing commercially fished species.

Collapsing Fisheries

Open-sea fish populations across the globe have experienced dramatic declines in recent decades. Scientists attribute the declines to pollution, habitat degradation, and unsustainable fishing practices that allow species to be harvested faster than they can reproduce.

Species currently threatened by overfishing include the Atlantic cod, the black sea bass, the red snapper, and some sharks.

Swordfish (Xiphias gladius) migrate great distances and are an important commercial fish to many countries. They can be found in the North Atlantic, South Atlantic, Mediterranean Sea, and Pacific and Indian Oceans. Scientists know relatively little about swordfish populations in the last two of these regions.

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