Stakeholders and fishery managers are concerned about the future viability of the West Coast swordfish fishery — the fishery has declined substantially due to increased regulation of the California/Oregon swordfish drift gillnet fishery, among other factors. Regulations have been strengthened to protect species such as sea turtles and marine mammals from being accidentally caught in the fishery. As a result, this abundant stock of swordfish is underutilized. Developing an economically feasible, low-bycatch type of gear for swordfish fishing along the U.S. West Coast could provide relief to swordfish fishermen and the communities they support. With support from a NOAA grant, the Pfleger Institute of Environmental Research is experimenting with catching swordfish off the southern California coast with deep-set buoy gear, which is used in the commercial swordfish fishery off the U.S. East Coast with few bycatch issues.
- Gray triggerfish
- Greater amberjack
- Ocean perch
- Sea Bass
- Turbot (Greenland)
ALSO KNOWN AS:
Broadbilled swordfish, Espada, Emperado, A`u, Mekajiki, Shutome
U.S. wild-caught from California, Hawaii, U.S. Pacific Island territories, and the high seas
- FISHING RATE
- HABITAT IMPACTS
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Swordfish’s species name, gladius, is derived from the word for the sword carried by Roman legionaires.LAUNCH GALLERY
Prized for its flavorful, steak-like meat, swordfish is found and harvested in temperate and tropical oceans around the world. U.S. fishermen responsibly harvest swordfish in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. In the Pacific, most of the harvest comes from fisheries off California and Hawaii. All U.S. fisheries for swordfish are strictly managed, both to conserve the swordfish resource and minimize the fisheries’ impact on other species.
For example, the Hawaii-based shallow-set longline fishery that targets swordfish operates under strict regulations to protect sea turtles, seabirds, and marine mammals. Most of these regulations were developed after years of research assessing the environmental impacts of longline fishing for swordfish off the Hawaiian Islands in the North Pacific. Fishermen use large circle hooks and finfish bait to reduce catch of sea turtles, and are trained in sea turtle handling and release techniques to increase the survival rate of any turtles that are incidentally caught. Each fishing vessel carries observers to record catch and interactions with protected species such as sea turtles, and satellite tracking systems are used to monitor fishing. There is also an annual limit on the number of sea turtles that can be hooked or entangled; if the limit is reached, the fishery is closed for the rest of the year. Research has shown that these sea turtle protections are working, and most interactions between the fishing fleet and loggerhead and leatherback sea turtles are non-lethal.
The West Coast drift-gillnet fishery also operates under strict regulations including area closures and special gear requirements, and onboard observers monitor catch and bycatch in the gillnet fishery. These measures effectively reduce impacts on leatherback sea turtles and marine mammals.
LOCATION & HABITAT
Swordfish are found around the world in tropical, temperate, and sometimes cold waters of the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans. Swordfish live in surface water to mid-water but feed throughout the water column. Scientists know little about the migration of Pacific swordfish, but tagging data suggest swordfish move eastward from the central Pacific, north of Hawaii, toward the U.S. West Coast.
Swordfish are one of the fastest and largest predators in the ocean. Their streamlined body allows them to swim at high speeds, up to 50 mph. They grow rapidly, reaching a maximum length of 14 feet and almost 1,200 pounds (although the average size caught in the fishery is 50–200 pounds). They are able to reproduce when they reach 5 to 6 years old. Swordfish spawn numerous times throughout the year near the surface of warm tropical and sub-tropical waters. In cooler waters, they spawn several times during the spring and summer. Swordfish are productive, and their eggs are fertilized externally and float at the sea surface where they incubate for about 2 1/2 days. Swordfish live for about 9 years.
Swordfish feed on a variety of fish and invertebrates such as squid. They capture their prey by slashing their bills 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, but juvenile swordfish are sometimes eaten by sharks and larger predatory fish.
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 fin is tall and crescent-shaped; the second is much smaller. Their anal fins are similar in shape to the dorsal fins but smaller. They have a broad, crescent-shaped tail. Their color is darkest on top, generally black or brown. Adult swordfish have no teeth or scales.
The Billfish Working Group of the International Scientific Committee for Tuna and Tuna-like Species in the North Pacific Ocean most recently assessed the status of swordfish in the North Pacific in 2009 and provided stock status updates in 2010.
Scientists and managers are required to prepare a report every year about the status of Pacific swordfish (and other highly migratory species) and information about the fisheries for these species off the U.S. West Coast.
Assessment results suggest that the Pacific swordfish stock is healthy, well above its target population levels. However, assessment results for this stock are often conflicting, so the status of this stock is unclear.
U.S. commercial fishermen use longline gear to harvest swordfish in federal waters off Hawaii and on the high seas. Fishermen set their fishing gear at night with luminescent light sticks to attract swordfish, or their prey, as they swim near the surface. Longline gear is brought back onboard the boat the next day with the catch. In the Hawaii-based longline fisheries, swordfish are kept on ice and sold fresh, rather than frozen. Fishermen in Hawaii rarely catch swordfish with handlines or troll gear.
Off the West Coast, U.S. commercial fishermen harvest swordfish using drift gillnets and harpoons. None of these gear types impact ocean habitat.
Longlines and gillnets can incidentally catch sea turtles, marine mammals, seabirds, sharks, and other finfish species. Since 2004, longliners in Hawaii have operated under several strict regulations to minimize impacts on other species:
- Every vessel carries a fishery observer and a satellite tracking system to monitor fishing.
- Use of circle hooks and finfish bait, instead of J-hooks and squid bait, to reduce the number of sea turtles caught and cause less injury to sea turtles that are hooked.
- Following sea turtle handling and release protocols that minimize further injury and increase the chance of survival.
- Annual limits on the number of leatherback and loggerhead sea turtles that can be caught; if either limit is reached, the fishery is closed for the rest of the year.
- Gear restrictions to minimize seabird interactions and injury to seabirds.
Regulations prohibit fishing with drift gillnets north of Point Conception, California, from August 15 through October 31 to protect leatherback sea turtles. (In the past, most accidental catch of leatherbacks has occurred north of this area in October, so by closing this area seasonally, fishermen avoid interacting with sea turtles.) Regulations also include specific gear requirements for drift gillnets (e.g., pingers that emit sound to deter marine mammals, and net extenders that drop the net below the surface to allow marine mammals to pass without being entangled).
Who’s in charge? West Coast: Pacific Fishery Management Council; Pacific Islands (Hawaii and territories): Western Pacific Fishery Management Council
Because highly migratory species such as swordfish move throughout large areas of the Pacific and are fished by many nations and gear types, management by the United States alone is not enough to ensure that harvests are sustainable in the long term. Effective conservation requires international cooperation. The International Scientific Committee for Tuna and Tuna-like Species in the North Pacific Ocean conducts stock assessments to determine the status of swordfish stocks. The Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission and Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commissions also conduct Pacific swordfish stock assessments and also help further international cooperation for the management of swordfish.
Current regulations: U.S. fishermen harvest swordfish in both federal and international waters. They follow U.S. regulations regardless of where they fish. These regulations are designed to ensure compliance with international management measures.
- Commercial fishermen must have a permit.
- No longline fishing in federal waters; no shallow-set longline fishing on the high seas (unless the vessel has a Hawaii longline limited entry permit and set certificates).
- Fishermen can use drift gillnets in federal waters but not on the high seas.
- Fishermen follow strict regulations to reduce bycatch of sea turtles and marine mammals (see Harvesting Swordfish).
- Onboard observers monitor catch and bycatch in the gillnet fishery.
- Fishermen must maintain logbooks to document their catch.
West Coast–based drift gillnet and harpoon fishing activity is highly dependent on seasonal oceanographic conditions that create temperature fronts, which concentrate prey for swordfish. Because of the seasonal migratory pattern of swordfish and seasonal fishing restrictions, over 90 percent of the fishing effort occurs from August 15 through January 31.
- Fishermen must have a permit to harvest swordfish, depending on what gear type they want to use; a limited number of permits are available to restrict the number of fishermen participating in some longline fisheries.
- Longline fishing prohibited areas are zones closed to longlining to protect endangered Hawaiian monk seals in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and prevent potential gear conflicts with smaller fishing boats. Vessels must carry vessel monitoring systems to enforce these zones.
- All Hawaii-based longline vessels fishing for swordfish carry onboard observers when requested by NOAA Fisheries, to monitor fishing and record any interactions with sea turtles, seabirds, and marine mammals.
- Longliners follow strict regulations to reduce bycatch of sea turtles, seabirds, and marine mammals (see Harvesting Swordfish).
The Hawaii-based longline fishery is the largest U.S. producer of swordfish. Hawaii-based longliners account for close to half of U.S. swordfish production and about 15 percent of all Pacific swordfish landings. Hawaii fishermen harvested 3.15 million pounds of swordfish in 2010. Close to 24,500 pounds were landed in American Samoa.
U.S. West Coast fishermen catch about 5.5 percent of the North Pacific–wide swordfish catch. U.S. commercial fishermen harvested around 809,000 pounds of swordfish off the West Coast in 2010.
Hawaii is the major source for U.S.-caught swordfish in America. Most of the catch is flown to markets on the East Coast. All of Hawaii's swordfish are landed, marketed fresh, and sold at the Honolulu fish auction, where most wholesalers acquire their fish for local, domestic, and export sales. (Hawaii Seafood)
Most of the swordfish landed in California supports the domestic seafood restaurant businesses.
Off the U.S. West Coast, recreational fishermen fish for swordfish with rod-and-reel gear. This fishery is managed under the same management plan as the commercial fishery. Fishermen 16 years and older must have a fishing license to catch and land swordfish and are allowed to keep two swordfish per day. Sportfishing vessels must have a permit and keep a monthly log of their fishing activity. There are no federal regulations for recreational fishing off Hawaii and U.S. Pacific Island territories; however, local rules may apply.
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 a 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. (Seafood Business, 2011)
Year-round; the Hawaii swordfish season begins in January and the majority of the catch is landed from January to May; off the U.S. West Coast, over 90 percent of the swordfish harvest is caught from August 15 through January 31.
Swordfish is an excellent source of selenium, niacin, and vitamin B12 and is 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.
|Serving Weight||100 g|
|Fat, total||4.01 g|
|Saturated fatty acids, total||1.097 g|
|Sugars, total||0 g|
|Fiber, total dietary||0 g|
Pacific Swordfish Table of Nutrition