Success on a plate. But for whom?

Swordfish is on every fashionable menu at present. But our taste for its meaty flesh is leading to fears of extinction
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Swordfish is cutting a dash in stylish restaurants, where customers enjoy its robust, meaty flavour and the hidden benefit of high levels of healthy fish oils. But, according to leading scientists and environmentalists, it may be time for us to scale down consumption.

Swordfish is cutting a dash in stylish restaurants, where customers enjoy its robust, meaty flavour and the hidden benefit of high levels of healthy fish oils. But, according to leading scientists and environmentalists, it may be time for us to scale down consumption.

A two-year-long campaign in the United States aimed at discouraging chefs and consumers from buying swordfish ended at the beginning of this month when the US government introduced new regulations to help protect stocks of Atlantic swordfish. But these measures may still not be enough to prevent the threat to the fashionable fish.

Tony Allan, head of the Fish! restaurant- chain in London, says swordfish is selling extremely well, partly because the quality has been very high in recent months. Yet he is mindful that while swordfish is not yet facing extinction, it remains on the World Conservation Union's Redlist of Endangered Species - the measurement most widely recognised in Europe - to be published later this year. "All our produce, from all over the world, boasts a sustainable fisheries certificate which should guarantee continuity of supply for 15 years," he says, "but we are concerned about the stocks."

On the current Redlist, North Atlantic swordfish are classified as endangered and face a high risk of extinction based on both a large population decrease in the last decade and on their actual and potential levels of exploitation. Swordfish, like tuna, is a highly migratory fish which makes it difficult to count, but the classification still serves as a warning.

As Dr Carl Safina, a leading monitor of swordfish warns, the species is over-fished, and boats that can't glean what they want from the Atlantic will simply go elsewhere. And, although there are regulations around the world, they have not been effectively implemented and policed, mainly because of the way swordfish are usually caught.

"Longlining" - the fishing method dramatised in ' The Perfect Storm' - uses lines dozens of miles long, baited with hundreds of hooks. This fishing practice accounts for nearly 98 per cent of the American swordfish catch. It is, however, indiscriminate. In the process, large numbers of young swordfish are killed - and simply discarded - before they have had a chance to reproduce. There is also an extraordinary level of "bicatch", other marine animals caught unintentionally, which are often endangered species. "It's just a dirty way of fishing," says Safina. "Unselective and destructive - there's no way I would be seen to condone it even if the swordfish population was healthy."

Although swordfish stocks in the Pacific are stronger than in the Atlantic, longlining in that area is causing the extinction of the leather-backed sea turtle. "That is enough for me to not want to buy any swordfish or big-eye bluefin tuna, regardless of their population levels," says Safina.

The informed US consumer has been boycotting swordfish for two years, in a campaign orchestrated by marine protection groups. Its goal was to persuade the US government to introduce protective measures. On 1 August, a year-round ban was introduced on longlining off the Florida coast. A partial ban, covering a few months of the year, was imposed on "nursery areas", which contain a lot of baby swordfish. These moves were enough to persuade the organisers to end their crusade.

But problems remain in the efforts to protect swordfish internationally. Fishing nations have consistently agreed to limits imposed on the catch and size of the fish, but then failed to enforce them. One-third of swordfish caught in the North Atlantic and 86 per cent from the Mediterranean have been found to be undersized. To make matters worse, the generally accepted minimum requirement of 33lb in weight is still way below the species' reproduction age. Furthermore, two-thirds of the fish landed from swordfish longlines in the Mediterranean were sharks, causing further disruption to the ecosystem.

American fishermen object to the new US regulations with claims that they are being over-regulated and forced out of business. Japan, Brazil and Morocco are all increasing their fishing effort for swordfish, and breaking catch and size limits too. If longlining isn't banned we may have to take a firm line and stop the commercial fishing of swordfish to safeguard the future of the species. Otherwise its days, like those of the once-abundant cod, could be numbered.

Further information: www.traffic.org/ swordfish; www.nrdc.org/wildlife/fish/ rnasword.asp#juvenile

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