Good Fish Guide
Method of production - Caught at sea
Capture method - Longline
Capture area - South Atlantic (FAO 41,31,34,47)
Stock area - South Atlantic
Stock detail - All Areas
Fish type - Oily fish
Swordfish has a low resilience to overfishing. The 2013 South Atlantic stock assessment had considerable uncertainty and so the status of the fishery with respect to Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) reference points could not be established. Despite this the scientific committee were of the opinion that the stock is not overfished nor being subject to overfishing. Bycatch of vulnerable species such as birds, sharks and turtles is of concern in these longline fisheries. Buy swordfish from fisheries that are well regulated by their flag state to ensure that bycatch mitigation devices are being employed and monitored. There are a number of Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certified swordfish fisheries in the Atlantic. MSC certified products from these fisheries represent the best option.
There remain large data deficiencies in most tuna and billfish fisheries, particularly with regards to fine scale spatial and temporal data for both target and especially for vulnerable bycatch species. Such information is vital to establish the true impact on the marine ecosystem. For this reason, commercial buyers in particular should establish what measures the flag state and fleet is taking to improve these deficiencies and specify the need for ongoing and demonstrable improvements. Large buyers should consider supporting such improvements.
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.
Swordfish fisheries in the Atlantic are assessed by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT). Provisional catches for 2015 of 10,937t are just above the five year average of 10,434 and under the Total Allowable Catch (TAC) of 15,000t. The latest stock assessment was carried out in September 2013 and considerable uncertainty has been noted by the scientific committee. The models used in the assessment displayed conflicting values for various analyses, and as a result, Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) has not been estimated. The committee stress the need for improved scientific information yet have formed the opinion that the stock is unlikely to be overfished nor being subject to overfishing.
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 here, 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.
ICCAT have opted to continue the previous TAC of 15,000t for the years 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, as recommended by the scientific committee. It is noted though that the scientific committee did not have sufficient confidence in the assessment results to change the previous recommendation to limit catches to no more than 15,000 t. 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.
In 2016, ICCAT established a register of vessels authorized to fish South Atlantic swordfish and requested countries to recover any missing catch data for years up to 2015, ready for upcoming stock reassessments.
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.
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.
Swordfish in the South Atlantic is taken primarily by surface longliners from (in order): Spain, Brazil, and Japan, but is captured in smaller quantities by various other gears in subsistence fisheries, such as gill nets off the coast of 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.
Based on method of production, fish type, and consumer rating: only fish rated 2 and below are included as an alternative in the list below . Click on a name to show the sustainable options available.
Froese, R. and D. Pauly. Editors. 2016. FishBase. Available at www.fishbase.org [Accessed Dec 2016].
ICCAT, 2016. Resolutions, recommendations and other decisions. Available at https://www.iccat.int/en/RecsRegs.asp [Accessed Dec 2016].
ICCAT, 2016. Report of the standing committee on research and statistics. Madrid, Spain 3 to 7, October 2016. Available at https://www.iccat.int/Documents/Meetings/Docs/2016_SCRS_ENG.pdf [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 http://iss-foundation.org/downloads/13305/ [Accessed Nov 2016].
Sign up to get all the latest marine related news from MCS
The UK charity for the protection of our seas, shores and wildlife.