Two Nova Scotia based swordfishing organizations have asked the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) to certify their catch as sustainable, but questions have been raised about bycatch species that may be harmed by swordfish long lining.

In any given year several hundred boats from Canada, the United States, Japan, Portugal and Spain take swordfish, mostly on long lines, from a vast, far offshore area of the North Atlantic stretching from the Hague line on Georges Bank to the Flemish Cap.

About 10 percent of North Atlantic swordfish are harpooned, mostly from lobster boats based in southwest Nova Scotia. The other 90 per cent are caught on long lines, many of which are set by large lobster boats that venture as far as 700 miles from home ports in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and New England.   

Figures from the industry and the International Convention of Atlantic Tuna (ICAT), which oversees stocks of tuna and “tuna like species,” show that over the last four years Canadian vessels have landed some 1,348 metric tons of swordfish. Estimates of the fishery’s value over this period range between ten and sixteen million dollars per year.

Nearly all the swordfish landed by Canadian and U.S. vessels is sold to restaurants, fish markets and other outlets in U.S. east coast states.

Troy Atkinson of Halifax is president of the Nova Scotia Sword Fishermen’s Association. Atkinson sells swordfishing gear and works on behalf of Canadian swordfishermen who take the iconic long billed fish on long lines. Atkinson and his counterpart Dale Richardson, vice-president of the Lockport, Nova Scotia-based Swordfish Harpoon Association, say efforts to conserve swordfish stocks over the last decade have paid off in a nearly full recovery of swordfish stocks.

Atkinson also says endangered sharks and sea turtles accidentally hooked on swordfish long lines are now adequately protected by on-board observer reporting and the use of line cutting and de-hooking equipment which, according to Atkinson, has reduced shark deaths from swordfish long lines to about 10 percent of what it was a decade ago. “Now 90 per cent of the sharks caught on swordfish long lines are returned to the sea alive,” he says, “and there have been no sea turtle fatalities reported in our fishery in 10 years.”

In Atkinson’s opinion the international “Give Swordfish a Break” campaign that ran from 1999 through 2006 and included seafood chefs as well as conservationists was “very successful and has met its goals.” Reduced swordfish quotas and voluntary cutbacks by fishermen during that campaign “have helped the stocks rebound to sustainable levels,” he says, “and this is what we’d like Marine Stewardship Council to recognize by certifying our fishery as sustainable.”

But Dr. Boris Worm, a professor of marine biology at Dalhousie University in Halifax says he “hopes the MSC will impose clear and effective conditions to protect the endangered species” that long line swordfishing unintentionally snares. “The most effective, and by far the surest way to protect that endangered bycatch,” Worm says, “would be requiring a qualified observer on every swordfish boat.”

Atkinson estimates that currently observers are posted on “anywhere from five to 25 percent of swordfishing boats.” Onboard observers, who report to the department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, are paid by sword fishermen with funds that are collected by the fishing associations.

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), because it is a top predator, the flesh of swordfish, like that of shark and king mackerel, is very high in mercury. At 0.976 parts per million, swordfish is more than eight times higher in mercury than tuna and has more than a hundred times more mercury than do species like haddock and flatfish that are lower on the ocean food chain. FDA’s advice to consumers is that women of childbearing age and young children should avoid eating swordfish.

Asked about the mercury content of the fish his members take, Atkinson says “I eat it, my kids eat it, so do a lot of other people I know, and I’ve never heard about any health effects that could possibly be blamed on eating swordfish. From what I understand you’d have to eat large amounts of it to cause any health problems. Let’s face it, swordfish is definitely a high-end menu item, not something that people eat that frequently.”

Atkinson points to recent studies showing that, along with mercury, the flesh of swordfish and that of many other species of fish also contains the element selenium. Several of these studies, he says, suggest that the selenium binds with mercury, making the mercury biologically unavailable and, therefore, harmless to people who consume these fish despite their high mercury content.

Swordfish Harpoon Association spokesman Dale Richardson thinks “there’s a sort of paranoia out there” about mercury in swordfish.  “You’d have to eat at least several pounds of it two or three times a week to be in any danger of it causing any health problems,” Richardson says. His association represents harvesters from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Newfoundland. He defends the harpoon swordfishery as “truly sustainable and responsible, because it’s so selective. You have to clearly see the fish before you throw, so there’s no concern about effects on bycatch because when you use a harpoon there is no bycatch.”

By sometime early in 2010 the Marine Stewardship Council is expected to decide whether to certify North Atlantic swordfish as sustainable. MSC could set additional requirements for protecting endangered bycatch  as conditions for awarding the sustainability certification that the swordfish associations are seeking.