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Special Feature: Swordfish

U.S. harvesters hope to show off their sustainability with MSC certification

Swordfish is a comeback story for U.S. fisheries. - Photo courtesy of American Spice Trade Association
By Melissa Wood
August 01, 2012

Once considered overfished, the majority of U.S.-caught swordfish may be eligible for Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification by the end of this year. 

“Ultimately our goal will be to try to have MSC-certified swordfish that’s domestically caught available to the market for whatever the demand is going to be,” says Scott Taylor, co-founder of Day Boat Seafood in Lake Park, Fla. 

The pelagic longline and handgear buoy line fishery off the coast of Florida, for which Day Boat is the client, earned MSC certification last December. It was the first pelagic
longline fishery to earn the eco-label, making it also the only year-round MSC-certified swordfish in the world (harpoon-caught swordfish in Northwest Canada has also been certified but is only available in the summer). 

Now the company is hoping to expand supply significantly by entering full MSC assessment for the North Atlantic longline fishery. Taylor calls seeking certification is a proactive approach, explaining that how much MSC-certified swordfish will be available depends entirely on how much consumers want — and if they’re willing to pay for it. Day Boat Seafood has found it difficult to charge more than 50 to 75 cents more at the wholesale level, which covers administrative costs for the program.   

“Whole Foods has a very active program, and there’s been interest in New England from Wegmans Food Markets and some of the higher-end grocery store chains where the consumers demand a sustainable product with recognition from the MSC,” says Taylor. 

Swordfish has come a long way: In the late 1990s SeaWeb and the National Resource Defense Council told consumers to “Give Swordfish a Break,” an anti-swordfish campaign so successful that Time magazine called it one of the top 10 environmental stories of 1998. By then the number of swordfish in North Atlantic waters had declined to only 58 percent of what scientists consider healthy levels. Environmental groups also criticized the swordfish industry for catching a high number of endangered sea turtles. 

The population rebounded after a successful rebuilding plan. Taylor is hoping that the MSC label will help set U.S. product apart from cheaper imports from countries that don’t follow such strict guidelines.

“It costs them a fraction of the money to produce the stuff than it does the U.S. fleet and there’s no protectionism for our fishermen,” Taylor says, hoping that one day the entire North Atlantic fishery will gain certification. “It really is one of the most highly regulated fisheries in the world, and it’s a success story, but how is the consumer supposed to know that?”

The majority of U.S. swordfish comes from the Northwest Atlantic longline fleet, which in 2010 caught 4.18 million pounds of the total 6.27-million-pound U.S. Atlantic catch. Managed by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, swordfish is primarily a warmwater species that migrates to colder waters for feeding in summer. 

Despite a slow start for the mid-Atlantic to Georges Bank this year, it started to take off by mid-summer, according to Tim Malley, CEO of Boston Sword & Tuna

“The root cause was hot water from the Gulfstream flooding onto the bank right into 50 fathoms,” explains Malley, who called June one of the poorest harvest periods on record. “This also impacted the harpoon fishery on both the Canadian side of Georges and on the U.S. side as well, where the past two years have seen a return of surface-swimming fish that were very encouraging.” 

Malley says early July looked better with some U.S. vessels doing well with mixed swordfish and tuna catches, and Mid-Atlantic vessels doing well fishing the edges of the Gulfstream. By the middle of the month, he says, “Canadian longliners were starting to see good production near the west side of the Grand Banks as the waters return to more typical temperatures and fish aggregate along thermal fronts.” 

Email Assistant Editor Melissa Wood at mwood@divcom.com 

Find other SeaFood Business articles with swordfish here.

August 2012 - SeaFood Business 

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