Fisheries managers should act to protect swordfish this month (commentary)

  • Between 1960 and 1996 swordfish declined more than 65%, the average size of fish caught shrank, and the species became severely overfished in the North Atlantic.
  • A campaign led by consumer groups and chefs helped convince regulators like ICCAT to take action, to the point that the fishery is now considered ‘recovered.’
  • Top chef and restaurateur Rick Moonen’s new op-ed argues that it’s time for a next step: “Now ICCAT has another opportunity to improve the long-term health of the swordfish population. This November, ICCAT members can adopt a new management approach for the stock and lock in sustainable fishing,” he says.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily of Mongabay.

As a chef, the sustainability of the food I prepare has always been important to me. What we eat — and how much we take from the ocean — affects the future of the entire planet. I want to know where my seafood comes from, and how it was caught.

Most importantly, I need to know that there is plenty of what I serve to go around, and that I’m not contributing to its decline. Twenty-five years ago, when the organizations Seaweb and Natural Resources Defense Council approached me about the alarming decline of North Atlantic swordfish, I knew I had to act.

In the 1980s and 1990s, swordfish was one of the most popular fish on high-end restaurant menus. Introduced to consumers as a mild yet delicious fish, it became a sensation. Over time, foodies’ love for the fish became too much for the swordfish population to handle. According to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), from 1960 to 1996 North Atlantic swordfish declined more than 65%, the average size of fish caught shrunk, and the stock became severely overfished.

North Atlantic swordfish (Xiphias gladius). Illustration courtesy of U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
North Atlantic swordfish. Illustration courtesy of U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The “Give Swordfish a Break” campaign, which began in 1998, involved chefs and restaurateurs like myself, Lidia Bastianich, Nora Pouillon, and Eric Ripert, because of our influence over how people eat. Together, more than 700 of us took swordfish off our menus to pressure government officials responsible for North Atlantic swordfish management to end overfishing and work to help the species recover.

The campaign worked. In 2000, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), which manages swordfish fishing in international waters, put a recovery plan for the species in place. And 13 years later, ICCAT scientists declared the population “rebuilt”— meaning it had recovered to a healthy level.

Rebuilding a stock like swordfish is a global effort with dozens of countries involved, and the progress didn’t come easily. In the U.S. and Canada in particular, swordfish is big business. Telling fishers to reduce their catch is difficult, and so is asking people to eat less of their favorite foods. But when these individual efforts were combined with government actions to set and enforce the recovery plan, the sacrifices were worth it.

Now ICCAT has another opportunity to improve the long-term health of the swordfish population. This November, ICCAT members can adopt a new management approach for the stock and lock in sustainable fishing.

This approach, known as a harvest strategy, would use scientific data to automatically set fishing rules based on how much fish is in the water any given year. This is vastly more sophisticated than how most fisheries have been managed for decades, usually by setting fishing limits annually through back-room negotiations that often prioritize short-term profit over long-term sustainability. With a harvest strategy, there is no room for debate: managers set a long-term vision for a fishery and agree in advance on how they’ll adjust catch limits if the population rises or falls beyond certain levels.

The U.S. and Canada are key decision-makers at ICCAT, and together, they can help push the harvest strategy forward. But for the commission to change its policy, all 52 member governments must agree. That might sound daunting, but such an agreement is not without precedent. Just last year, ICCAT advanced the same type of management for the Atlantic bluefin tuna, another iconic species that was also brought back from the edge of collapse and now has a bright future, both as high-end sushi and as a thriving sustainable population.

More than two decades ago, I joined the effort to help save swordfish because I believe in the power of individuals and consumers to make real change. Saving a species from global threats and pressures can feel overwhelming. But by working from sea to plate and as a team — including everyone with a stake in a healthy fishery — we succeeded. Collectively, we have changed the trajectory for swordfish, and now managers can lock in the recovery for decades to come.

I’m proud to have been part of the work to make Atlantic swordfish sustainable. I hope that ICCAT is ready to finish the job. Working together, we can all make seafood delicious and sustainable.


Rick Moonen is the master development chef for Perry’s Restaurants.

Banner image: Swordfish photo courtesy of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Related audio from Mongabay’s podcast: A discussion of tuna regulation measures with staff writer Elizabeth Claire Alberts and Pew Charitable Trusts’ senior officer for international fisheries, Grantly Galland:

See related: A Mongabay investigation that led to new shark conservation measures:

Shark-fishing gear banned across much of Pacific in conservation ‘win’