« May 2005 Table of Contents
Species Focus - Swordfish
The industry struggles to retain market share amid methylmercury and overfishing concerns
May 01, 2005
Swordfish also won’t sell as well if the industry
can’t dispel misinformation about methylmercury and overfishing.
The swordfish industry is fighting to alleviate consumer concern about
methylmercury, which has jumped to the forefront of the public-relations battle
to retain market share.
Since 2001, the Food and Drug Administration has warned pregnant and
lactating women, women planning a pregnancy and young children to avoid eating
swordfish, shark, tilefish and king mackerel, because the long-living,
predatory fish contain relatively high levels of methylmercury, a toxin that
threatens a fetus’ developing nervous system.
But the swordfish industry is increasingly concerned that the FDA advisory has scared all consumers, women and men, away from swordfish.
“For the vast majority of consumers, swordfish is an excellent choice,” says
John Connelly, president of the National Fisheries Institute in McLean, Va. “We
believe it’s extraordinarily important that consumers understand the benefits
of seafood and place any risks in the proper context.”
Connelly says that the industry, government, food scientists and medical professionals
“all have a role to play in providing accurate and timely information when
allegations about swordfish are made.”
The seafood business, he adds, needs to work “in closer partnership with the
medical community to make sure they have the tools in place to better educate
consumers about the [healthful aspects] of fish, specifically swordfish.”
“The mercury issue has really confused consumers,” agrees Ruth Levy, VP of
marketing for Stavis Seafoods, a Boston distributor. “They have been getting
mixed messages as to whether swordfish is good or not good to eat. As a result,
there’s been a diminishing consumer base. I have yet to see any sign that shows
[eating swordfish] is a real risk to the consumer.”
“There has been a lot of negative press, particularly in the last year or
so, stating that pregnant women shouldn’t eat certain types of fish because the
mercury may be bad for their babies,” adds Larry Horton, a salesman with John
Nagle Co., a Boston wholesale distributor.
”But I read a government report just recently that said that’s pretty much a
lot of bunk,” he says. “It said the level of mercury in swordfish and tuna is
so small that the effects are negligible on the U.S. population, and that the
positive effects of the omega-3 oils in fish far outweigh the negligible
negative effect. It also said that mercury is not a bigger problem today than
it was 25 years ago.”
Horton is referring to a report House Resources Committee Chairman Richard
Pombo (R-Calif.) and Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee Chairman Jim
Gibbons (R-Nev.) released in March titled “Mercury in Perspective: Fact and
Fiction About the Debate Over Mercury” (see Newsline story, page 8).
“After an exhaustive review of the science surrounding the mercury debate,
it is clear that some special- interest groups are crying wolf in their claims about the Bush
administration and public health,” said Pombo in the report.
“This rhetoric has frightened individuals away from regular fish
consumption, which could actually threaten public health.
“Researchers have consistently proven that regular fish consumption has many
positive health effects, and the FDA and [Environmental Protection Agency] have
issued the most restrictive fish advisories in the world, which more than
adequately protect American women and children.
“We must make sure that these scare tactics are not steering the public away
from a healthy food source entirely and unnecessarily.”
In the face of increased media coverage about mercury in seafood, swordfish
sales have suffered. David Horton, president of MacLean’s Seafood in New
Bedford, Mass., a wholesaler that also facilitates an online auction at
www.bidforfish.com, attributes swordfish’s declining market share to “all the
misinformation that’s been pummeling this industry for the last eight years.”
Swordfish “is probably one of the most healthy foods to eat. It’s one of the
richest sources of omega-3 fatty acids,” says Horton.
Environmentalists “were out there saying that swordfish was going extinct,
and that it was very unhealthy to eat, and all those things are absolutely not
true. Swordfish stocks in the North Atlantic and Pacific are at MSY (maximum
stable yield). It’s a stable resource.”
Swordfish’s public-relations battle began seven years ago with Give Swordfish
a Break, a campaign organized by the Natural Resources Defense Council and
SeaWeb. Over the course of the campaign, hundreds of chefs and retailers agreed
to boycott swordfish.
The campaign was a media sensation. ABC News called swordfish “a symbol for
the crisis of the oceans.” Time Magazine declared the campaign one of the top
10 environmental stories of the year.
International quota restrictions were adopted in 1999. Give Swordfish a
Break officially ended in August 2000 when the U.S. government closed nursery
areas in the Atlantic to pelagic longlining.
Two years ago, a report issued by the scientific arm of the International
Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas claimed Atlantic swordfish
had recovered to 94 percent of levels considered healthy over the previous
But the damage was already done.
“Unfortunately, some people don’t like [swordfish] because of the
restrictions they have on it,” says Jeff Fox, head chef at the Fountain Side
Seafood Grill in Horsham, Pa. “Some people boycott swordfish, especially down
south, the people in the Norfolk area.
“I know a lot of fishermen who come have lunch and dinner up here, and they
boycott sword. They won’t eat it because they think it’s being overfished.”
Most consumers don’t know how much the industry has already done to protect
the swordfish population, says Sean Bergen, sales and purchasing manager for
Globe Fish Co. in Boston.
“Over the past few years, both our government and worldwide, we’ve been
doing a pretty effective job of regulating the catch,” he notes. “Stocks seem
to be pretty healthy for the amount of [harvesting] effort.
“I think we’re doing a good job watching out for the supply of swordfish so
consumers can eat it with confidence that they’re not eating something
A volatile market
In addition to the challenge of addressing consumer concerns about
methylmercury and overfishing, swordfish marketers are faced with an often
Today’s swordfish market is “volatile,” says Dave Marabella, a principle in
Garden & Valley Isle Seafood in Honolulu. “One week it could be down in the
$2 or $3 [per pound] range, and the next week it could be $6. [It] probably has
to do more with what’s coming in from other areas of the globe.
“That’s normally what really affects the price of fish.”
The current price of a marker, or 100-pound-and-up fish, is “pretty strong,”
he says, at $5 to $6 per pound.
Fox of Fountain Side Seafood Grill doesn’t feature swordfish on his regular
menu because prices fluctuate too much and can get too high.
“I’m not paying $10 a pound; that ain’t happening,” says Fox, who purchases
his fish from P&G Trading Co. in Trenton, N.J., and Blue Crab Seafood in
Philadelphia. “Right now I’m paying $6 per pound.”
“A lot of restaurants lately have been using swordfish as a special just
because the price and the availability can be so erratic,” notes Bergen of
Globe Fish. “It’s risky to put it on a printed menu, so they tend to use it for
a blackboard special. That way, when the price is at $10, $11 or $12 a pound,
they don’t need to feature [swordfish].
“But when the price is at $7 or $8 per pound, they can run them on the
blackboard. We have seen quite a bit of that.”
Bergen notes that the swordfish market is volatile because fishermen “tend
to catch swordfish based on the [waxing] phase of the moon. Swordfish are much
more active during these phases of the moon and become inactive on other
phases. As a result, worldwide, the supply fluctuates up and down.”
Overall, the U.S. swordfish supply is down. U.S. swordfish imports fell from
29 million pounds in 2003 to 23.6 million pounds in 2004, according to the
National Marine Fisheries Service.
Meanwhile, the U.S. swordfish catch, which averaged 15.6 million pounds per
year from 1990 to 2000, averaged just 9.1 million pounds between 2001 and 2003,
the latest year for which figures are available, reports NMFS.
Weather dictates preparations
Swordfish has long been prized by chefs for its moist, flavorful taste and
firm, meaty texture.
Fox likes to get creative with swordfish.
“It depends on the time of year and climate,” he says. “In warmer [weather]
I go lighter [with sauces]; in winter I go heavier.”
One of his favorite recipes calls for swordfish encrusted with pesto or
black-and-white sesame seeds and an Asian glaze.
At the retail level, swordfish “sell visually,” says Bergen. “The appearance
has to be just so for them to sell. When you go to the retail case and see a
piece of swordfish, you want the meat to look nice and pink, and the bloodline
in the center of the steak to be nice and red. If that’s not the case — if the
meat looks off color or if the bloodline is a brownish color — then it won’t