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Species Focus - Swordfish

The industry struggles to retain market share amid methylmercury and overfishing concerns

Howard Riell
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 three years.

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 endangered.”

A volatile market

In addition to the challenge of addressing consumer concerns about methylmercury and overfishing, swordfish marketers are faced with an often unpredictable market.

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 sell.”

May 2005 - SeaFood Business 

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