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Swordfish quality can vary greatly because swordfish boats will be at sea for different lengths of time, from a few days to nearly a month. Swordfish has a firm, meaty texture and is a good source of selenium, niacin, vitamin B12, and zinc. Bright white or pink swordfish meat with a bright red bloodline denotes freshness. Avoid swordfish meat that is gray and bloodlines that are brown because that indicates lower quality fish. Peak swordfish landings are August through October, which is also when the prices tend to be low. Swordfish caught by California gillnet boats in the fall tend to be high-quality fish, according to some buyers. Frozen swordfish is available year-round.
Health & Nutrition
- Total Fat4.01g
Recommended Servings per Month
- Kids 6-120
- Kids 0-50
Swordfish are named after their long, flattened bills that resemble a sword. Their bodies are stout and rounded and the species has large eyes. A special eye muscle, along with a heat exchange system, allows swordfish to swim in cold, deep waters to hunt for prey. With their streamlined bodies, swordfish can swim at high speeds, reaching up to 50 MPH. Swordfish are a darker color on top, usually black or brownish, that then fades to a lighter color below.
Their fins and tail are crescent-shaped. The first dorsal fin is tall and the second dorsal fin is much smaller. They have a broad tail. Swordfish grow quickly and have a maximum length of 14 feet. They can weigh over 1,165 pounds, but usually, weigh between 50 to 200 pounds when caught. This species usually lives for about nine years.
Females begin to reproduce between four and six years of age. Spawning occurs multiple times throughout the year in warm tropical and sub-tropical waters. In cooler waters, swordfish spawning occurs several times during the spring and summer. Depending on their size, females can release between one million and 29 million eggs. The eggs are fertilized in the water column and float at the ocean’s surface where they incubate for around two and a half days.
Swordfish feed on various fish and invertebrates. They will capture their prey by slashing their bill back and forth in the water, stunning or injuring their target in the process. As swordfish are at the top of the food chain, they are rarely preyed upon by other species. Sharks and larger predatory fish will sometimes eat juvenile swordfish.
Swordfish are found throughout the tropical, temperate, and even cold waters of the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic Oceans – including the Mediterranean Sea, the Sea of Marmara, the Black Sea, and the Sea of Azov. A cosmopolitan species, their range extends from 50° N to 45° S in the Western Pacific, from 50° N to 35° S in the Eastern Pacific, from 25° N to 45° S in the Indian Ocean, from 50° N to 40°-45° S in the Western Atlantic, and from 60° N to 45°-50° S in the Eastern Atlantic. Swordfish are highly migratory and conduct annual migrations from warm-water spawning grounds in the fall and winter to temperate and cold-water feeding grounds in the summer. In the Western Atlantic, these annual migrations can encompass thousands of miles along the United States and Canadian seaboards and in the Eastern Atlantic along Africa and Europe. Spawning occurs throughout the year in the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, and in Florida – with peak spawning occurring from April to September. Subsequently, the Gulf of Mexico and Florida Straights have been identified as important nursery areas for the North Atlantic swordfish population. Perhaps the best-known spawning grounds for swordfish occur in the Mediterranean Sea, off the coast of Italy. In the Eastern Pacific, swordfish range from Southern California and the Gulf of California, to Chile – including the US Pacific Islands. In the Western Pacific, they can be found from Russia, south to Japan, throughout Southeast Asia to Australia and New Zealand. Spawning occurs in the Central Pacific Ocean from March to July, from September to December in the Western South Pacific, and all year in Pacific equatorial waters. Little is known about the migration of Pacific swordfish, but recent data suggests movement between the Central Pacific towards the US West Coast. In the Indian Ocean, concentrations occur off India, Sri Lanka, Saudi Arabia, and eastern Africa.
Swordfish are pelagic and feed throughout the water column. Although they are commonly found in surface waters, they can dive to 2133 feet (650 meters) deep. Swordfish can tolerate an array of temperatures from 41° to 81° Fahrenheit (5° to 27° Celsius); however, their optimal range is between 64° and 72° Fahrenheit (18° and 22° Celsius). The distribution of swordfish varies by size and sex over their range where larger individuals are found in deeper, colder waters than their smaller counterparts with males tending to inhabit warmer waters than females.
NOAA Fisheries maintains an Atlantic-wide tagging program through the Cooperative Tagging Center. The center conducts electronic tagging of swordfish using pop-up satellite archival tags. The tags provide details about the life of swordfish, such as movement patterns, in their natural environment without researchers or anglers having to physically retrieve the tags from the fish or from the ocean.
NOAA’s Pacific Islands and Southwest Fisheries Science Centers conduct research on swordfish which in turn is used to inform the management of the species. Recent assessments suggest that the swordfish population in the Pacific is comprised of a single, continuous stock with areas of high and low abundance. However, new assessments should be conducted using updated and standardized statistics as current ones are based on old and incomplete data.
There is also an effort to start testing a new method of buoy gear fishing for swordfish off the west coast of the United States. Deep-set buoy gear shows promise as another way to sustainably harvest swordfish.Management:
NOAA Fisheries manages the US North Atlantic swordfish fishery through its Atlantic Highly Migratory Species Management Division. The Division manages swordfish under the Consolidated Atlantic Highly Migratory Species Fishery Management Plan (FMP). The FMP includes management measures such as:
Limited access permits for longline and some handgear which thereby restricts the number of commercial fishing vessels in the swordfish fishery;
Commercial open access permits for some handgear (with the exception of buoy gear);
Annual catch limits and size and landing restrictions;
Reporting requirements and mandatory use of vessel monitoring systems (VMS); and,
Mandatory at-sea observer coverage (when selected).
Additionally, NOAA fisheries requires fishers to undertake the following measures to reduce bycatch in the US North Atlantic fishery:
Requirements that fishers use large circle hooks and bait restrictions;
Should fishers encounter a protected species they must immediately stop fishing and move their vessel one nautical mile away;
When fishing in the Mid-Atlantic Bight all lines must be limited to 20 nautical miles to protect pilot whales and Risso’s dolphins (they must additionally post handling/release guidelines on their vessels); and,
Specific area restrictions off-limits to fishing.
Swordfish are a highly migratory species (HMS) that move between the jurisdiction of multiple nations as well as the high seas, and as such their management requires international cooperation. The United Nations Law of the Sea indicates that the management of HMS be carried out through Regional Fishery Management Organizations (RFMOs). RFMOs are the only legally mandated fishery management body on the high seas. The RFMO responsible for the management of swordfish, as well as other Atlantic HMS, notably tunas, is the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT). ICCAT is made up of 51 contracting parties including the United States, Canada, Japan, China, Russia, and the United Kingdom and is responsible for management of the three swordfish stocks in the Atlantic: the North Atlantic, South Atlantic, and the Mediterranean.
ICCAT implemented a 10-year rebuilding plan for North Atlantic swordfish between 2000 and 2009 that has subsequently been successful as the stock is now considered to be rebuilt and healthy. Currently, the South Atlantic stock is considered not likely overfished. The Mediterranean stock; however, is currently overfished with overfishing occurring and is not considered to be well-managed. ICAAT has implemented numerous management measures for swordfish such as: an annual fishing quota, country-specific total allowable catch (TAC) limits, minimum size limits, gear and area restrictions, and requirements that swordfish be landed whole. Additionally, member countries must report catch, catch at size, location, and other data to ICCAT to ensure catches do not exceed TACs. ICCAT has also adopted measures to reduce bycatch and to protect bycatch species, though the effectiveness of these measures is somewhat uncertain. Stock assessments for Atlantic swordfish are carried out every four years.
NOAA Fisheries and the Pacific Fishery Management Council manage the North Pacific swordfish fishery on the US West Coast under the FMP for the US West Coast Fisheries for Highly Migratory Species. Under the FMP, fishers must: have permits, record catch, abide by gear restrictions (for example, longline fishing is prohibited within 200 miles of the US West Coast), observe time and area closures to reduce bycatch of sea turtles, and partake in mandatory training in safe handling and release techniques for bycatch species (longline vessels are also required to have equipment onboard to assist in handling and releasing bycatch).
NOAA Fisheries and the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council manage the North Pacific swordfish fishery in the US Pacific Islands under the Fishery Ecosystem Plan for the Pelagic Fisheries of the Western Pacific. The majority of the US Pacific swordfish catch comes from Hawaiian-based longline vessels – accounting for roughly 65 percent of the total US North Pacific catch. Management measures include: permit requirements, gear restrictions to reduce bycatch, following handling and release protocols for bycatch (as well as mandatory training on handling and release techniques), limits on the amount of sea turtles that can be incidentally caught (if reached, the fishery closes), area closures to protect endangered species such as the Hawaiian monk seal, mandatory VMS, and observer coverage (when selected).
Like their Atlantic counterparts, Pacific swordfish are highly migratory, cross international boundaries and the high seas, and are fished by many nations. As such, their management also requires international cooperation. In the North and South Pacific, swordfish, along with tunas and other HMS, are managed by two RFMOs: the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) in the Eastern Pacific Ocean and the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) in the Western Central Pacific Ocean. IATTC is composed of over 20 different nations including the United States, Canada, China, Belize, Costa Rica, and Mexico while the WCPFC is composed of over 25 member countries including Australia, China, New Zealand, Indonesia, Japan, France, the United States, and the Republic of Korea. Both RFMOs are responsible for setting management and compliance measures that all participating member nations must adhere to.
There are currently no TAC limits and no swordfish-specific management measures in place for swordfish under IATTC in the Eastern Pacific, but populations are considered to be relatively healthy. Catches in the Eastern Pacific have; however, been increasing in recent years, and are approaching maximum sustainable yield (MSY). While there are no swordfish-specific management measures under IATTC, member countries must report catch and landings data to IATTC and vessels over (24 meters) in length must have a VMS in place. Swordfish populations in the Western Central Pacific are also considered to be relatively healthy, but here are few swordfish-specific management measures in place under the WCPFC in the Western Central Pacific Ocean. Those measures that are in place aim to reduce fishing pressure on swordfish by limiting the number of fishing vessels and the amount of swordfish that can be caught. The WCPFC also has reporting requirements, VMS requirements, and there are spatial and temporal closures in the region. Observer coverage is considered to be low in both the Eastern and Western Central Pacific (roughly five percent on longline vessels). Both RFMOs have implemented bycatch mitigation measures aimed at protecting seabirds, sea turtles, and other finfish though the effectiveness of these measures is somewhat uncertain.
The Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) is the RFMO charged with managing swordfish in the Indian Ocean. There are currently 31 members (the majority of which are nation states) in the IOTC. Among management measures in place for member countries are: requirements that countries report the number of vessels exceeding 78 feet long (and under 78 feet long if fishing outside their exclusive economic zone), vessel monitoring requirements, a Fleet Development Plan for capacity control, bycatch mitigation strategies (particularly with sea turtles, juvenile tunas, and sharks), and observer coverage (IOTC requires at least five percent of vessels have an observer). Additionally, member countries are required to record and report catch and effort data by species and gear type. IOTC members are also required to submit any information regarding Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) vessels to the Commission.
Impact on Stock
Swordfish are large migratory predators found around the world that grow quickly during their first year of life and have few predators as adults, making them resilient to fishing pressure. North Atlantic swordfish were declared overfished in the late 1990s. In 1999, quotas there were reduced as part of a 10-year plan to help rebuild stocks. In 2013 the population was declared rebuilt at about 14% above its target level, according to NOAA’s FishWatch.
Seafood Watch reports that swordfish populations in the Pacific Ocean appear to be healthy, and overfishing is not occurring there, but FishWatch warned that stock assessments results have been conflicting. In the Indian Ocean southwest region swordfish are below levels needed to produce the maximum sustainable yield, according to a 2014 Seafood Watch Report. Mediterranean swordfish populations have been declining and Seafood Watch considers the most likely scenario from the last assessment is that the population is overfished and slight overfishing is occurring there.
Most swordfish worldwide are caught using longlines, which doesn’t come in contact with the seafloor so it has few impacts on the ocean habitat. Swordfish are also caught with rod and reel, harpoon, handlines, and buoy gear that also have minimal effects.
Longline gear used to catch swordfish can result in high levels of bycatch, including sharks, seabirds, juvenile swordfish, and endangered marine turtles. Shortfin mako sharks, which the International Union for Conservation of Nature categorizes as a vulnerable species, are caught incidentally in the Atlantic swordfish fishery.
To reduce bycatch risks, fishermen in the U.S. Atlantic are required to use circle hooks and longliners in Hawaii operate under strict regulations to protect sea turtles. Rod and reel, harpoon, handlines, and buoy gear also used for catching swordfish result in less bycatch. Despite a 2002 European ban on driftnet gear, some swordfish in the Mediterranean continue to be caught with them.
Given the global distribution of swordfish, multiple groups are responsible for managing the fisheries. The National Marine Fisheries Service and Fisheries and Oceans Canada manage swordfish for the U.S. and Canada in the North Atlantic. Strict management measures there are helping to reduce bycatch and bycatch mortality, according to the FishWatch.
Indian Ocean swordfish fisheries are managed by the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission. Overall Seafood Watch gave management there a red recommendation because of compliance issues with IUU fishing, data reporting to the Commission from individual countries, lack of measures to improve monitoring and no total allowable catch in place.
The Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council manages swordfish in Hawaiian waters. Management, which includes scientific research and monitoring, catch limits and permit number limits, is considered effective.
The Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) and the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission manage swordfish in the Pacific. Measures include annual catch limits, vessel number limits, scientific monitoring, and gear limits. Management in the Western and Central Pacific is considered moderately effective. While the IATTC adopted bycatch management measures in the Eastern Pacific, Seafood Watch reported that many don’t meet best practice requirements and that scientific advice is not always followed when setting measures.
|Origin||Harvest Method||Sustainability Rating||FIP Source||Find Products|
|Atlantic Ocean - North||Handlines and Hand-Operated Pole-and-Lines||Find Products|
|Atlantic Ocean - North||Harpoon||Find Products|
|Atlantic Ocean - North (FIP)||Drifting Longlines||Find Products|
|Atlantic Ocean - South||Handlines and Hand-Operated Pole-and-Lines||Find Products|
|Atlantic Ocean - South||Trolling Lines||Find Products|
|Atlantic Ocean - South (FIP)||Drifting Longlines||Find Products|
|Australia (MSC)||Longline||Find Products|
|Canada - Atlantic (MSC)||Drifting Longlines||Find Products|
|Costa Rica (FIP)||Longline||Find Products|
|Costa Rica (FIP)||Pole||Find Products|
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