North Atlantic Swordfish

Swordfish

Xiphias gladius

ALSO KNOWN AS:

  • Broadbilled swordfish,
  • Broadbill,
  • Espada,
  • Emperado

SOURCE:

  • U.S. wild-caught from U.S. Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico waters
 

STATUS

  • POPULATION
  • FISHING RATE
  • HABITAT IMPACTS
  • BYCATCH
 

Click the icons to learn more about each criteria

 
 

OVERVIEW

large swordfish pulled up on a vessel

A large swordfish pulled up on a vessel that took part in the experiment on new gear on the Grand Banks from 2001 to 2003.

LAUNCH GALLERY

In the late 1990s, the North Atlantic swordfish population was low, at only 58 percent of its target level, and was declared overfished. Pelagic longlines, which are the primary commercial gear used to catch swordfish, were also catching endangered sea turtles. This same population of swordfish is now thriving and interactions between pelagic longlines and sea turtles have been reduced by 90 percent. What happened over this decade to change the fate of the swordfish fishery in the North Atlantic?

Under an international rebuilding plan for swordfish, the United States implemented a number of management measures to reduce the amount of fishing and to protect undersized swordfish, to allow the swordfish population to grow and rebuild. Fishermen, managers, and scientists worked together to develop new management measures that reduce the impact the U.S. fishery has on sea turtles and marine animals, making it one of the most environmentally responsible pelagic longline fisheries in the world. Most people are not aware of the significant sacrifices made by U.S. Atlantic swordfish fishermen to rebuild North Atlantic swordfish. Swordfish is one of the great success stories of fishery management, and it tastes pretty good, too.

Looking Ahead

The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) coordinates international management of Atlantic swordfish fisheries. Each year, member nations negotiate the amount of Atlantic swordfish that each nation can harvest. Due to several factors, including regulations in place to maintain the swordfish population and protect other species, U.S. fishermen are not harvesting their entire swordfish quota. Our swordfish fishery is highly monitored - interactions with protected species are counted, and if the count for a certain species reaches its limit, the swordfish fishery could be shut down for the season. Managers are faced with the challenge of finding creative ways to help our fishermen catch their entire swordfish quota and increase the profitability of this rebuilt fishery.

 

In 2014, NOAA Fisheries introduced a new permit that allows fishermen to keep a limited number of swordfish caught on rod and reel and other actively managed gears. This permit, the Swordfish General Commercial permit, expands access to a greater number of fishermen, providing an opportunity to fish the healthy stock of swordfish with a gear type that is typically low in bycatch. This greater access to the resource could help the United States catch their allocated swordfish quota share. READ MORE

 
 
 

LOCATION & HABITAT

Swordfish are found around the world in tropical, temperate, and sometimes cold waters of the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans. North Atlantic swordfish are found in the Gulf Stream of the western North Atlantic Ocean, extending north into the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. North Atlantic swordfish are also found in the eastern Atlantic along the coast of Africa and Europe. North Atlantic swordfish annually migrate thousands of miles along the eastern seaboard of the United States and Canada and also in the eastern Atlantic along Africa and Europe. Swordfish live in surface to mid-water but feed throughout the water column. They move from spawning grounds in warm waters to feeding grounds in colder waters. The Gulf of Mexico is an important nursery area for North Atlantic swordfish.

 
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BIOLOGY

Atlantic swordfish are one of the fastest and largest predators in the ocean. They have a streamlined body that allows them to swim at high speeds, up to 50 mph. They grow rapidly, reaching a maximum size of about 1,165 pounds (although the average size caught in the fishery is 50-200 pounds).

Females are able to reproduce between 4 and 5 years of age. Depending on their size, females can produce anywhere from 1 million to 29 million eggs. Swordfish spawn numerous times throughout the year in warm tropical and sub-tropical waters. In the western North Atlantic they spawn south of the Sargasso Sea and in the upper Caribbean from December to March and off the southeast coast of the United States from April through August.Swordfish can live to about 9 years.

Swordfish feed on a variety of fish and invertebrates such as squid. They capture their prey by slashing their bill back and forth, stunning or injuring the prey in the process. They have developed unique characteristics, such as special eye muscles and a heat exchange system, that allow them to swim in deep cold water in search of prey. Swordfish feed at the top of the food chain and are rarely preyed upon by other animals. Sharks and larger predatory fishes sometimes eat juvenile swordfish.

 
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PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION

Swordfish have a long, flattened bill that looks like a sword, as their name implies. They have a stout, rounded body and large eyes. Their first dorsal (back) fin is tall and crescent shaped; the second is much smaller. Their anal fins (on their belly) are similar in shape to the dorsal fins but are smaller. They have a broad, crescent shaped tail. Their color is darkest on top, generally black or brown, and fades to a lighter color below.

 
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OVERVIEW

The ICCAT Standing Committee on Research and Statistics assesses the abundance of Atlantic swordfish and evaluates the sustainability of current and proposed harvest practices. They use the scientific information from these assessments to make management recommendations. They last assessed Atlantic swordfish in 2013.

 
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POPULATION STATUS

The North Atlantic swordfish population is fully rebuilt, at approximately 14 percent above its target level (2013). The population has been consistently increasing since 2000, most likely due to reduced catches.

 
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ADDITIONAL RESEARCH

NOAA Fisheries scientists maintain an Atlantic-wide cooperative tagging program and conduct electronic tagging of swordfish using pop-up satellite archival tags (PSATs). PSATs are computer-controlled sensors that can be programmed to measure and store water temperature, depth, and light-based location data every minute. After a pre-determined time period (researchers can program the tag to sample from less than a day to over a year), the tags detach from the fish and float to the surface where they transmit their stored information to a data collection system onboard NOAA's polar-orbiting weather satellites. The collected data are then provided to researchers via email. The beauty of this technology is that it provides intimate details of the life of individual fish in their natural environment without requiring researchers or anglers to physically retrieve the tags from the fish or from the ocean. This tool holds great promise for ultimately providing more specific types of data that will assist in management, conservation, and rebuilding of the Atlantic swordfish resource.

 
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Harvesting Swordfish

U.S. commercial fishermen mainly use pelagic longline gear to harvest swordfish. They also sometimes use handgear (rod and reel, harpoon, and buoy gear). When fishing for swordfish, fishermen generally deploy pelagic longline gear at sunset and haul it back in at sunrise, taking advantage of swordfish’s habit of feeding near the surface at night. Fishermen often use lightsticks, which contain light emitting chemicals, to attract baitfish which in turn may attract predators like swordfish.

Pelagic longline gear and handgear have no impact on habitat because they’re used in the water column and don’t come into contact with the ocean floor. Handgear used to catch swordfish is very selective and bycatch is minimal. Pelagic longline gear targeting swordfish can incidentally catch protected species like marine mammals, sea turtles, and sea birds. NOAA Fisheries has implemented regulations and other management measures to prevent impacts from these gears.

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Management

Who’s in charge? NOAA Fisheries Atlantic Highly Migratory Species Management Division and the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) disclaimer

With highly migratory species like swordfish, management is complicated because these species migrate thousands of miles across oceans and international borders. A fish that is off the coast of Massachusetts one week could be caught off the coast of Canada the next. These types of resources must be managed both in the United States and at the international level. With swordfish, we set regulations for the fishery based on both our science and conservation and management recommendations from ICCAT.

Current management: The U.S. commercial fishery for swordfish is strictly regulated and highly monitored:

  • Quotas limiting the overall amount of swordfish that can be harvested.
  • Minimum size limits for swordfish to ensure that only individuals that have had the chance to mature and reproduce are harvested, to keep the population healthy.
  • Reporting requirements documenting catch, fishing activities, and swordfish sales.
  • Limited access permits restricting the number of vessels fishing for swordfish.

A number of strict regulations have been implemented to prevent bycatch. Fishermen are:

  • Required to use large circle hooks and certain types of bait that limit gear interactions with sea turtles. Circle hooks are specifically designed to minimize the damage caused by hooking, giving animals that are captured and released a better chance at survival.
  • Trained and certified to use special techniques to safely de-hook and release turtles if they are incidentally caught.
  • Required to stop fishing and move one nautical mile if they encounter a protected species.
  • Required to protect pilot whales and Risso’s dolphins when fishing in the Mid-Atlantic Bight by limiting the length of their lines to 20 nautical miles and posting marine mammal handling/release guidelines on their vessel. In addition, if fishing in the Cape Hatteras Special Research Area, pelagic longliners must contact NOAA Fisheries at least 48 hours prior to a trip and carry observers if requested.
  • Required to use weak hooks in the Gulf of Mexico to reduce incidental catch of bluefin tuna and are prohibited from using live bait to reduce bycatch of billfish.
  • Restricted from areas of the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic to reduce bycatch of all species, especially undersized swordfish.
  • Required to carry vessel monitoring systems (satellite technology) onboard their boats to enforce these closures.
  • Required to carry at-sea fisheries observers upon request (about 8 percent of the longline fleet is randomly selected for observation during fishing trips). NOAA Fisheries reviews observer data to monitor protected species interactions.

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Annual Harvest

The United States catches about 1/5 of the total North Atlantic swordfish harvest. Several other nations (such as Japan, Spain, Portugal, and Canada) are also active in the North Atlantic swordfish fishery. Despite increased restrictions on the domestic fishery, U.S. landings have gradually been rising. U.S. fishermen harvested about 3,700 metric tons whole weight of swordfish in 2012. 

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Economy

Most U.S.-caught swordfish is sold fresh. You’ll often see frozen swordfish from other countries in the market that is cheaper than U.S. swordfish. The frozen product is cheaper because it is generally lower quality than fresh swordfish. Most of the time imported swordfish comes from fisheries that don’t always have the same level of regulations to protect the environment that the U.S. swordfish fishery does.

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Recreational

Recreational fishermen have fished for swordfish off the U.S. East Coast since the 1920s and currently harvest less than one percent of the swordfish caught every year by the United States. The recreational fishery for highly migratory species like swordfish is managed under the same plan as the commercial fishery. U.S. recreational fisherman must have a permit to catch swordfish. There are minimum sizes of fish they can catch as well as limits on how many they can catch. Certain areas are closed to fishing during certain times of the year. Recreational fishermen must also report their swordfish catch or if they release it, they must release it without removing the fish from the water in a manner that ensures it has a good chance of survival once released.

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OVERVIEW

Swordfish is available in a variety of product forms including headed and gutted (basically whole with head and guts removed), steaks, and loins. Swordfish is moist and flavorful with a slightly sweet taste. It has moderately high oil content and a firm, meaty texture. When raw, the flesh varies from white and ivory to pink and orange. When cooked, swordfish turns beige. Swordfish flesh should be firm. Cut surfaces should be free of ragged edges. Discolored, dull skin is a sign of mishandling or dehydration.  

Most of the swordfish we import comes from the Pacific Ocean. Imports of Atlantic swordfish mostly come from Canada, followed by Brazil.

 
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SEASONAL AVAILABILITY

U.S.-caught Atlantic swordfish is available fresh year-round with market peaks from June through October.

 
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NUTRITION

Swordfish is an excellent source of selenium, niacin, and vitamin B12 and a good source of zinc. Swordfish may contain amounts of methylmercury in excess of the FDA’s recommended limit for nursing moms, moms-to-be, and young children. For more information, see EPA and FDA advice on what you need to know about mercury in fish and shellfish. disclaimer

Servings 1
Serving Weight 100 g
Calories 121
Protein 19.8 g
Fat, total 4.01 g
Saturated fatty acids, total 1.097 g
Carbohydrate 0 g
Sugars, total 0 g
Fiber, total dietary 0 g
Cholesterol 39 mg
Selenium 48.1 mcg
Sodium 90 mg

North Atlantic Swordfish Table of Nutrition

 
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