Noelle Swan

To Swordfish or Not To Swordfish

In Uncategorized on December 28, 2009 at 6:38 pm

Perusing the menu at Pomodoro’s in Brookline Village, my eyes locked on “Grilled Atlantic swordfish on Sardinian couscous risotto.” My lips met in the beginnings of an “Mmmmmm,” just as my stepmother chimed in “does anybody know if swordfish is still a faux-pas?”

“I thought I heard that wasn’t true anymore,” I replied in preemptive defense. She gave me one of those skeptical looks that parents reserve for their children and proceeded to order the zucchini flowers instead.

Feeling a bit guilty, I realized that I had no idea what the status of the swordfish population really was. Sure, “I thought I’d heard” but I also “thought I’d heard” that green M&Ms were an aphrodisiac and pop rocks and coke killed Little Mikey. I decided it was time to try out this environmental journalism thing and get the skinny on swordfish.

In the 1980s, the “Give the Swordfish a Break” campaign popularized the plight of the dwindling North Atlantic swordfish. This campaign successfully coordinated boycotts of restaurants serving swordfish in the northeast resulting in what the National Marine Fisheries Service describes as “recovery that has surpassed expectation.”

Despite the rebound of the swordfish population, the discerning diner must ask one critical question before ordering, “how was the swordfish caught?” If the answer is through longline fishing, then it’s time to find something else on the menu.

Longline fishing is a method of increasing yields of large fish such as swordfish and tuna. This method utilizes mainlines tens of miles long. At varying intervals, a line dangles down bearing hand-baited hooks every few feet. These lines bring in a tremendous harvest of fish, but also of sea birds, sea turtles, marine mammals, sharks and other less desirable fish that are discarded as incidental waste.

If instead, you hear harpoon or handline, you know that this fish was caught with sustainable and responsible fishing methods. If specific fishing methods are unavailable, the chef should at least be able to tell you where it was caught. The Monterrey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood WATCH considers all domestically caught swordfish acceptable. It is highly recommended that you avoid imported swordfish.

If your server simply gives you a blank stare, I’d move on.


  1. I’m glad to see someone clarifying the difference between the “Give Swordfish a Break” campaign of the late 1990s, aimed at allowing swordfish stocks to recover, and the ongoing attempt to educate consumers about the ecological damage caused by longline gear, which is how most swordfish are caught these days. One of the few remaining harpoon swordfish fisheries is in Atlantic Canada, yet inexplicably, the Canadian federal government has continually favored the longlining industry over the harpooners in decisions such as how much swordfish each fishery is allowed. A couple of other corrections: the long line is not called a “net” (at least not that I’ve heard) – it is the “main line.” It is more like tens of miles long, with hundreds of hooks suspended from it. The collateral damage from global industrial longlining fleets includes not only mind-blowing numbers of sea turtles and sea birds, but also marine mammals, unwanted and depleted species of fish, and an even more staggering number of sharks. It’s definitely time more people started asking how their swordfish was caught, so that eventually the sidelined and diminishing harpoon fisheries can be rewarded for sticking to old-fashioned, selective fishing practices.

  2. Alex, thanks you for your interest in this piece and more importantly for your clarifications. I have made several changes to the post per your suggestions. That is a shame to hear about the Canadian government’s favoring of longline fishing.

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