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Xiphias gladius

Method of production - Caught at sea
Capture method - Longline
Capture area - North West and Western Central Atlantic (FAO 21, 31)
Stock area - North West & Central West Atlantic
Stock detail - Canadian and US certified fleets
Certification - Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)
Fish type - Oily fish

Sustainability rating Click for explaination of rating

This fish, caught by the methods and in the area listed above, is a good sustainable fish to eat. Click on the rating icon above to read more and on the alternatives tab below to find similar fish to eat.

Sustainability overview

The North Atlantic swordfish stock was last assessed in 2013 and indicated that the fishery is healthy. Unreported discarding is believed to be an issue in parts of the fishery and so improved national regulations and monitoring is required. The fishery encounters bycatch of vulnerable sharks and turtles, yet it is implementing a range of measures to reduce the incidental capture and mortality of these species. As part of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification, evidence of effectiveness of these measures needs to be demonstrated. MSC certified products from this fishery represent the best option.


Swordfish is the only member of the family Xiphiidae. It is a highly migratory species, moving towards temperate or cold waters in summer to feed and returning to warmer waters to spawn. They are apex predators that feed opportunistically. Squids and fishes are major prey items. In the Atlantic, spawning takes place in spring in the southern Sargasso Sea. In the Pacific, spawning occurs during spring and summer, and in the Mediterranean between June-August. Usually solitary, it forms large schools during spawning. A fast growing fish, swordfish begin to mature at two years of age, when they are about 150 to 170 cm in length, and by age four all are mature. They can attain a maximum size of 4.5m and a weight of 650kg. Swordfish tolerate temperatures of about 5 to 27C, but their optimum range is about 18 to 22C, and larvae have been found only at temperatures exceeding 24C.

Stock information

Stock area
North West & Central West Atlantic

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Stock information
Swordfish fisheries in the Atlantic are assessed by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT). For the past decade, the North Atlantic estimated catch has averaged about 11,500t per year, considerably down from the peak of 20,236 in 1987. The provisional catch in 2015 of 11,108t is up from the previous year but slightly lower than the five year average of 12,158t. It is also under the TAC of 13,700t and the estimated Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) of 13,660t. The swordfish stocks of both the North and South Atlantic were last assessed in September 2013 using data up to 2011. The assessment for the North Atlantic indicated that overfishing was not occurring (Fishing mortality, F, at 0.82Fmsy) and that the stock is not overfished (Biomass, B, at 1.14Bmsy).


Swordfish stocks range across and are accessed by numerous coastal states, making harmonised and effective management of these individual stocks very difficult. As a result, intergovernmental Regional Fisheries Management Organisations (RFMOs) have been established. There are five main tuna RFMOs worldwide and it is their responsibility to carry out data collection, scientific monitoring and management of these fisheries. The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) is the RFMO that is responsible for the development of management and conservation measures for Atlantic Ocean tuna and tuna like species, however the degree to which they are implemented, monitored and enforced still varies significantly between the various coastal states. There remain large data deficiencies in most tuna fisheries, particularly with regards to fine scale spatial and temporal data for both target and especially vulnerable bycatch species. For this reason, it is important to choose tuna that has been caught by vessels that are well regulated by their flag state. Commercial buyers in particular should establish what measures their source country and fleet are taking to improve these deficiencies. There are a number of Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certified sustainable swordfish fisheries in Canada and the US which represent the best options.

Following are ICCAT management and conservation measures of note that apply to North Atlantic swordfish. As swordfish is often taken in longline fisheries targeting bigeye and yellowfin, measures that apply to these fisheries have been included:

ICCAT have chosen to maintain the current TAC of 13,700 t throughout 2014 to 2017. This TAC has an 83% probability of maintaining the North Atlantic swordfish stock in its rebuilt condition by 2021. The scientific committee however, have expressed concern though that individual member states had repeatedly set country-specific catch levels above the recommended TAC. Since 1991, several fleets have reported dead discards. The volume of Atlantic-wide reported discards has ranged from a minimum of 157 t in 2009 to a maximum of 1,139 t in 2000, with 149 t reported for 2015). The Committee expressed concern due to the low percentage of fleets that have reported annual dead discards (in t) in recent years.

Two minimum swordfish size options are applied to the entire Atlantic. These are 125 cm Lower Jaw to Fork Length (LJFL) (or 25Kg) with a 15% tolerance, or 119 cm LJFL (or 15kg) with zero tolerance and evaluation of the discards.

There will be a list of vessels 20 meters plus that are allowed to fish swordfish submitted to ICCAT by each country.

The development of multiannual management and conservation program for coastal states whose vessels operate in the bigeye and yellowfin fisheries;

ICCAT have specified a limit on the number of vessels over 20m in length operating in yellowfin or bigeye fisheries and require that a register of authorised vessels of this nature be maintained;

A prohibition to retain at risk shark species including: bigeye thresher, oceanic whitetip, hammerhead and silky sharks. This has been in place for over three years, yet ICCAT has not received records of compliance from the majority of member states. Porbeagle was added to this list in 2015.

A combination of at least two bird mitigation measures are required to be used for pelagic longline fisheries, yet monitoring and data relating to this and other vulnerable bycatch species is deficient.

ICCAT have developed an IUU vessel register and a register of vessels authorised to undertake transhipments at sea. Additionally, transhipments at sea can only take place if an ICCAT Observer is on-board the receiving vessel.

Harvest Control Rules are being considered for this stock, and while they are in progress, should the biomass approach the level which triggered the establishment of the previous rebuilding plan, then the Commission shall adopt a 10?year rebuilding plan.

ICCAT has noted that the current mandatory level of observer coverage of 5% has not been implemented by many of the fleets and in 2016, updated their recommendation for a minimum of 5% observer coverage of fishing effort in each of the pelagic longline, purse seine, bait boat, traps, gillnet and trawl fisheries.

Capture information

The largest proportion of the Atlantic catches is made using surface-drifting longline and in the North Atlantic is primarily taken by (in order): Spain, USA, Canada, Portugal, Japan and Morocco. Smaller catches are however taken by numerous other countries and other gears including traditional gillnets off the coast of western Africa. Longlining is associated with bycatch of large shark and other vulnerable non-target species, including sea turtles and seabirds, depending on area and fishing activity.

There are a range of measures that are available and required to be employed to reduce bycatch and mortality of these species including: circle and/or barbless hooks to prevent turtle capture; chemical, magnetic and rare earth metal shark deterrents; and bird scaring lines for vessels south of 20 degrees S. South of 25 degrees S, longline vessels must use at least two of the following: night setting, bird-scaring lines or line weighting. In the Mediterranean, seabird mitigation measures are voluntary. Several species of albatross are threatened with extinction, and whilst there have been many advances in reducing interactions with longline fisheries, it is not clear how effective these have been. There is also a prohibition to retain at risk shark species including: bigeye thresher, oceanic whitetip, hammerhead, silky and porbeagle sharks. This has been in place for over four years, yet ICCAT has not received records of compliance from the majority of member states. Porbeagle is significantly overfished, and whilst there is a zero EU TAC for porbeagle, it is still caught incidentally and discarded, and also landed by other fleets. In 2016 additional measures for blue shark were introduced, mainly focussed on improved data recording, with potential to introduce Harvest Control Rules. Monitoring of bycatch is deficient in these fisheries and the scientific committee strongly recommends improvements in data collection.

In 2016, work was begun to improve ICCAT's understanding of the trophic ecology of pelagic ecosystems that are important and unique for species managed in this area. ICCAT also introduced a number of recommendations, to improve compliance and reporting. ICCAT has noted that the current mandatory level of observer coverage of 5% has not been implemented by many of the fleets and in 2016, updated their recommendation for a minimum of 5% observer coverage of fishing effort in each of the pelagic longline, purse seine, bait boat, traps, gillnet and trawl fisheries.

This specific listing is for MSC certified longline fleets from Canada and the US which target swordfish. MSC certified fisheries have very good monitoring and reporting requirements which are regularly audited, and as part of the MSC certification for these fisheries, a number of conditions were imposed. Specifically regarding bycatch, the fisheries need to objectively demonstrate and evidence how their operations do not hinder the recovery and rebuilding of certain shark and turtle populations. The fisheries have already demonstrated how they are working on these bycatch issues.

Read more about capture methods

Froese, R. and D. Pauly. Editors. 2016. FishBase. Available at [Accessed Dec 2016].

ICCAT, 2016. Resolutions, recommendations and other decisions. Available at [Accessed Dec 2016].

ICCAT, 2016. Report of the standing committee on research and statistics. Madrid, Spain 3 to 7, October 2016. Available at [Accessed Nov 2016].

ISSF, 2016. Status of the world fisheries for tuna: Management of tuna stocks and fisheries, 2016. ISSF Technical Report 2016-14.International Seafood Sustainability Foundation, Washington, D.C., USA. Available at [Accessed Nov 2016].

Intertek Moody Marine, 2012. MSC public certification report for North Atlantic swordfish (Xiphias gladius), Canadian pelagic longline fishery. S. Devitt, A. Park, R. O Boyle, J.J. Maguire, M. Sissenwine. 09-01 Nova Scotia Swordfish. Available at [Accessed Dec 2016].

MRAG Americas, 2013. MSC public certification report for US North Atlantic swordfish, pelagic longline and handgear buoy line fishery. G. Parkes, R. Mitchell and R.J. Trumble. MRAG?MSC?7a?v3. Available at [Accessed Dec 2016].

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