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Demand for swordfish plateaus, while landings and imports decline

Boycotts and bad press haven't stifled demand for this
    popular, high-end species. - Photo courtesy of York Lobster & Seafood
By James Wright
November 01, 2006

Fall is prime time in the North­east for fresh swordfish - big ones with peak fat content after a summer of gorging on smaller fish on the Grand Banks. This is when buyers look to Boston and pay top dollar for the swordfish fleet's harvest.

This seasonal buying practice is routine for small wholesalers and independent restaurant owners, while large-scale distributors rely mostly on imports. That's partly because today the sword market in New England bears scant resemblance to its salad days two decades ago.

There's a good chance that even the fish available from Boston purveyors is imported.

"A lot of it's from Canada," says Darryl Parker, owner of Cherry Street Fish Market in Danvers, Mass. He buys five or six fish per week from suppliers in Boston. His retail price in early October was $9.99 per pound.

"If you have the right sources, you can get a heads up on who's got good fish coming in," says Parker. "But the whole market's been narrowed down to a handful of dealers."

Massachusetts, which once led the nation in the swordfish harvest back in the 1980s with annual landings nearing 3 million pounds, now struggles to reel in what was once a signature species. The state's catch in 2004, according to the most recent statistics available from the National Marine Fisheries Service, was a mere 278,461 pounds, a 73 percent drop from the year before.

The domestic catch is now fronted by California, which caught 2.6 million pounds of Pacific swordfish in 2004. In total, U.S. swordfish landings in 2004 were the lowest since the 1970s - just 6 million pounds, down a third from the previous year.

Imports are in a decline as well. Through July of this year, imports were down 3 percent from last year at the same time. In 2005, 22.4 million pounds were imported, a 35 percent decline from 2002. Still, importers say supplies will be ample.

"[Supply has] been great. The last couple of months it's been too good, because the price is in the gutter," says Tim Lycke, GM of seafood importer Incredible Fresh in Miami. Swordfish production in Central and South America was "red hot" in early Oc­tober, Lycke says, with prices in the low-$3 range.

Demand for swordfish is down, perhaps because the public image of swordfish is still in repair mode. The effects of the well-publicized chef boycott, "Give Swordfish a Break," spearheaded by SeaWeb in 1998, are a matter of debate, but its impact was certainly felt.

Additionally, in 2004 swordfish was included on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's list of seafood species to avoid because of elevated methyl­mercury levels.

Most swordfish dealers agree that the boycott had more impact than the federal government's warning, because since it was lifted in 2000 the species has been on the comeback trail in foodservice operations and high-end retailers.

Despite the negative press, swordfish is a steady market, according to Phil Walsh of Alfa Gamma Seafood Group of Miami, which sources markers (100 pounds and up) mainly from Panama and Ecuador.

Walsh says swordfish may have "topped off" in recent years, but because of its relatively high price and esteem, the fish remains in the good graces of white-tablecloth restaurants and savvy consumers who know what they're looking for in the seafood case.

"Good sword is expensive," says Walsh. "But, honestly, that's what people want when they buy sword. There's no middle ground.

"It's a steady business because it's a wonderful fish, but at $14 or $16 a pound, you just don't get the same kind of volume that you get with $6.99."

In early October, swordfish from Central and South America was priced in the mid-$3 range for fish 50 to 99 pounds each and around $4 for markers, according to Urner Barry data. Domestic fish were priced a bit higher for larger fish.

Gauging quality

A reliable quality barometer for swordfish is the bloodline, the area of red muscle that surrounds two blood vessels than run the length of the fish, very close to its skin.

Swordfish constantly adjust the amount of blood flowing through these vessels by constricting or ex­panding the muscle area to help regulate body temperature as they migrate.

In a cross-section of swordfish, also known as a "wheel cut," check the color and shape. Typically, the redder and tighter the spiral pattern, the better.

Avoid fish with a brown bloodline. But bloodline is not the sole indicator of quality; look at the meat color, too. It should be a nice white or pink color, not a dark gray-brown.

Some swordfish take on an orange hue and are known as "pumpkins." Their value is typically higher.

November is when the best buys for sword can be found, especially from California as the fishery peaks and prices drop for whole fish. High-production season for South Am­erican fisheries is from March to October.

Supply outlook

Massachusetts is not the only state where landings have plummeted. California and Hawaii's harvests have been severely limited by longline fishing restrictions and remain hampered by pressure to keep fishing activity to a minimum.

Further, the International Com­mis­sion for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, which regulates the number of swordfish caught in the Atlantic Ocean, is expected to set the quota this month for each country that hunts swordfish.

The United States has not reached its quota since 1992, when more than 21 million pounds of sword were harvested.

Therefore, it is expected that ICCAT will cut the U.S. quota and give the balance to other countries, of which there are many. The United States imported sword, harvested in temperate zones around the world, from 37 different nations in 2005.

U.S. imports of fresh swordfish are led by Canada and Panama, respectively. Combined, the two countries account for about 40 percent of all swordfish exported to the United States.

Singapore is far and away the leading supplier of frozen swordfish. The 5.6 million pounds imported from Singapore in 2005 represented 87 percent of the frozen fillet market.

Regardless of which country will be harvesting the most swordfish, 
expect supply to be adequate, if not abundant.

"There'll be no oversupply," says Walsh. "But we'll never not have it."

Assistant Editor James Wright can be 
e-mailed at jwright@divcom.com

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