The swordfish (Xiphias gladius) is one of the most powerful fish in the ocean. Elusive and combative, the swordfish is prized by recreational anglers in the United States. Its name comes from its long, flat, swordlike bill, which is larger than those of other billfish species. When hooked and brought near the boat, the swordfish aggressively wields its bill, forcing anglers to use extreme caution to avoid being injured.
Swordfish is popular table fare because of its mildly sweet flavor, moist, meaty texture and moderately high fat content. It is an excellent source of selenium, niacin and vitamin B12, but sometimes contains high levels of mercury.
Biology and Behavior
Like other billfish, females grow larger than males. Swordfish feed near the surface at night on squid and small pelagic fish; during the day, they move deeper to feed on squid and larger pelagic fish that they stun with their slashing bill. Swordfish generally live to nine years, although some have lived to 15 years. Fully grown, the exceed 14 feet in length. The International Game Fish Association's world record for swordfish is 1,182 pounds, set in 1953.
Sexual maturity occurs between five and six years. In the Gulf of Mexico, spawning takes place year-round, and peaks from late April to July near the Gulf’s Loop Current.
Wasteful Fishing Gear
Approximately 40 boats use surface longline gear in the Gulf. These fishermen catch yellowfin tuna and swordfish by setting hundreds of hooks on lines that stretch an average of 30 miles. But surface longlines also catch and kill approximately 80 other species, including spawning bluefin tuna, endangered sea turtles, and hard-fighting game fish such as blue marlin.5 Commercial longline fishermen are prohibited from keeping game fish, so they throw them back, many of which die.
Even the target species are wasted. Due to size limits designed to protect juvenile swordfish, many are thrown back. In fact, for every swordfish kept, more than one is discarded for this reason. Of those discarded, only 23 percent survive.
Longline Prohibition in the Atlantic Ocean
The swordfish population in the North Atlantic declined rapidly during the 1970s and 1980s because of unsustainable fishing pressure from surface longline fishing gear. In response to a lawsuit filed by several marine conservation and recreational fishing organizations, in 2001 the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) prohibited longline use in waters off the southeastern United States. The restriction was necessary to protect an important swordfish nursery and reduce bycatch, the catching and killing of nontarget ocean wildlife such as sailfish.
After more than a decade, the results have been positive, and Atlantic swordfish is making a comeback due to the restrictions imposed by international swordfish management organizations. NMFS now estimates that Atlantic swordfish is no longer overfished. Recreational charter captains and anglers report increased numbers of swordfish during annual tournaments in South Florida largely because of the 2001 longline prohibition. Despite the improved status of the stock, however, swordfish are still vulnerable to this type of gear in the Gulf of Mexico that kills juvenile fish before they reach spawning age.
The Pew Environment Group is working with commercial and recreational fishermen and other conservation groups to encourage state and federal agencies to phase out surface longline fishing for yellowfin tuna and swordfish in the Gulf of Mexico in favor of more selective equipment that would protect juvenile swordfish and keep Gulf fishermen in business. Restoration funds from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill could help pay for this gear transition program.
Take Action Today
We need your support. Take action now. Please visit www.PewEnvironment.org/GulfTuna to tell Dr. Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to transition from surface longlines to more selective fishing gears in the Gulf of Mexico.
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