North Atlantic Swordfish on Track to Strong Recovery

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People have hunted swordfish throughout history using harpoons and conventional fishing lines. Swordfish caught this way are typically large, sexually mature individuals, said Elizabeth Babcock, a conservation biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Fishing became a great threat to the species with the development of commercial longline fisheries in the 1960s. Longlines are fishing lines that can stretch over dozens of miles and are baited with hundreds of hooks.

Juvenile swordfish and other severely depleted species are often accidentally caught by longlines. The problem, known as bycatch, is a huge issue for some species. ICCAT statistics indicate, for example, that 95 percent or more of white and blue marlins caught are taken accidentally by commercial boats fishing for swordfish and tuna.

"Unlike the harpoon and sport fisheries, the longline fishery is very efficient at catching swordfish of all ages throughout their range," said Babcock. "The catches in the 1990s—which peaked at 38,600 metric tons in 1995—were much higher than the population could sustain."

The average North Atlantic swordfish caught in the 1960s weighed 250 pounds. By the late 1990s, the average was 90 pounds.

Taking Action

In 1999 ICCAT estimated that swordfish numbers had dropped to one-third of the size the population would have been without fishing—and far below levels that would allow fishing to continue without driving the species to extinction.

In response to the dire situation and continued pressure from environmental groups and the United States delegation, ICCAT introduced a 10-year recovery plan to rebuild North Atlantic swordfish stocks. The plan limited international fishing quotas to about 10,000 metric tons annually. The numbers were to be reviewed this year.

In August 2000, the United States closed an additional 132,670 square miles (343,610 square kilometers) of Atlantic swordfish nursery waters to longline fishing.

"If recent catch levels continue, there is more than an 80 percent chance that the population will recover [completely] by 2009 or even sooner," said Babcock.

Environmental groups will have to maintain their vigilance and continue to lobby ICCAT to keep fishing quotas low enough to ensure the recovery is sustained, she said.

"This is an incredible victory for conservationists, commercial fisherman, consumers, and, of course, swordfish," said Ellen Pikitch of the Wildlife Conservation Society. But "the battle is far from over," she said.

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