Capture method — Longline
Capture area — Atlantic, North (FAO 21,27) and Central (FAO 31,34)
Stock area — North Atlantic
Stock detail — All Areas
Updated: December 2019
Swordfish fisheries in the north Atlantic are assessed by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT). The North Atlantic swordfish stock was assessed in 2017 using data up to 2015 and indicated that the stock was not overfished (although close to BMSY at 1.04BMSY) or subject to overfishing (fishing effort, F, at 0.78 FMSY). The estimate of stock status in 2017 is slightly more pessimistic than the estimated status in the previous assessments. Among the management measures, countries are required to take measures to ensure that the stock is maintained at its target level (Bmsy) with greater that 50% probability. The TAC (Total Allowable Catch) reduced from 13,700 t for 2010-2017 to 13,200t for 2018-2021, with individual catch limits assigned to each country. This is in response to scientific advice that a TAC of 13,700 t has only a 36% probability of maintaining the stock in a rebuilt condition by 2028, whereas a TAC of 13,200 t would increase this probability to 50%. The forecasts do not account for discards, which are underreported, quota carryover from year to the next and quota transfer between north and south Atlantic. Catch has only exceeded the TAC once since 2007 (2012, 13,868 t).
Pelagic longlining in the ICCAT area can be associated with significant bycatch of other billfish and vulnerable species such as sharks, turtles and seabirds. Whilst some mitigation measures are in place, their effectiveness has not been evaluated and better data collection & reporting is needed. Observer coverage is 5% on large longliners, increasing to 10% in 2022, but compliance has been mixed, and 20% coverage is recommended.
Commercial buyers should establish what measures the flag state and fleet relating to their source is taking to reduce impacts to and improve reporting of interactions with vulnerable species. Large buyers should consider supporting such improvements. There are a number of MSC certified swordfish fisheries in this region which represent the best choice.
Swordfish is the only member of the family Xiphiidae. It is a highly migratory species, moving towards temperate or cold waters in summer to feed and returning to warmer waters to spawn. They are apex predators that feed opportunistically. Squids and fishes are major prey items. In the Atlantic, spawning takes place in spring in the southern Sargasso Sea. In the Pacific, spawning occurs during spring and summer, and in the Mediterranean between June-August. Usually solitary, it forms large schools during spawning. A fast growing fish, swordfish begin to mature at two years of age, when they are about 150 to 170 cm in length, and by age four all are mature. They can attain a maximum size of 4.5m and a weight of 650kg. Swordfish tolerate temperatures of about 5 to 27C, but their optimum range is about 18 to 22C, and larvae have been found only at temperatures exceeding 24C.
Criterion score: 0 info
Swordfish fisheries in the north Atlantic are assessed by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT). Atlantic swordfish have been targeted since harpoon fisheries began in the late 1800s. They are also taken as bycatch or opportunistically by fleets targeting tuna.
The North Atlantic swordfish stock was assessed in 2017 using data up to 2015. Overfishing is not occurring (Fishing effort, F, at 0.78 FMSY) and biomass (B) is either higher than or very close to BMSY (estimated to be 1.04 BMSY). The estimate of stock status in 2017 is slightly more pessimistic than the estimated status in the previous 2009 and 2013 assessments, and suggests that in 2015 there was a 61% probability that the stock is at or above MSY reference levels. In the 2013 assessment the probability was greater than 90%. The change reflects the new estimates of biomass and lower productivity.
For the past decade, the North Atlantic estimated total catch (landings plus dead discards) has averaged about 11,245t per year. The provisional catch in 2018 (8,858t) represents a 56% decrease since the 1987 peak in North Atlantic landings (20,238 t). These reduced landings have been attributed to ICCAT regulatory recommendations and shifts in how and where the fleets operate (e.g. to the south Atlantic, or out of the Atlantic altogether, or taking advantage of better market conditions and targeting tuna or sharks). Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) is estimated to be 13,059 t and the Total Allowable Catch (TAC) in 2018 reduces from 13,700t to 13,200t. Catches around 13,000 t are expected to allow the population to remain at or above BMSY through to the year 2028. Since 1991, very few fleets have reported dead discards for Atlantic swordfish stocks and the Scientific Committee has concerns that what has been reported is not necessarily representative of the entire fishery.
Criterion score: 0.5 info
Similar to most tuna stocks, swordfish range across and are accessed by numerous coastal states, making harmonised and effective management of these individual stocks very difficult. To try and address this, Intergovernmental Regional Fisheries Management Organisations (RFMOs) have been established. There are five main tuna RFMOs worldwide and it is their responsibility to carry out data collection, scientific monitoring and management of these fisheries. This stock is managed and assessed by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT). Whilst the RFMOs are responsible for the development of management and conservation measures, the degree to which they are implemented, monitored and enforced still varies significantly between coastal states. There remain large data deficiencies in most tuna and billfish fisheries, particularly with regards to fine scale spatial and temporal data for both target and especially for vulnerable bycatch species. For this reason, it is important to choose swordfish that has been caught by vessels that are well regulated by their flag state.
There are a number of Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certified sustainable swordfish fisheries in Canada and the US which represent the best options.
Countries are required to take measures to ensure that the stock is maintained at its target level (Bmsy) with greater that 50% probability. There is an interim lower limit set at 40% of Bmsy and the commission is looking to develop Harvest Control Rules. The TAC (Total Allowable Catch) reduced from 13,700 t for 2010-2017 to 13,200t for 2018-2021, with individual catch limits assigned to each country. This is in response to scientific advice that a TAC of 13,700 t has only a 36% probability of maintaining the stock in a rebuilt condition by 2028, whereas a TAC of 13,200 t would increase this probability to 50%. The forecasts do not account for discards, which are underreported, quota carryover from year to the next and quota transfer between north and south Atlantic. Catch has only exceeded the TAC once since 2007 (2012, 13,868 t).
For Atlantic swordfish (north and south):
Catching and landing swordfish of less than 25kg or 125cm is prohibited (although incidental catch of such fish is allowed as long as it doesn’t exceed 15% of total catch), or 15kg and 119cm with no incidental catch allowed and discards must be recorded. This has resulted in an estimated 10% reduction of landings of undersize north Atlantic swordfish, and south Atlantic undersize landings have remained stable, although the data are not reliable. Undersize fish hooked in longlines experience a high mortality (around 80%) and it is recommended that more complete data be gathered on fishing effort and size data over the entire Atlantic.
ICCAT maintains a list of vessels over 20m authorised to fish for these species, although other vessels may retain them as bycatch as long as the country sets limits on this and doesn’t exceed its quota.
Swordfish must be accompanied by Catch Documentation when being imported and exported.
Other management measures of note include:
There is a mandatory level of observer coverage of 5%, increasing to 2022. Compliance has been mixed, although some fleets are currently implementing voluntary observer programmes that cover 100% of fishing trips. Scientific committee recommendation is a minimum of 20% for accurate reporting of bycatch. Purse seine and longline vessels over 20m long are encouraged to increase their observer coverage from the required minimum. Vessel Monitoring Systems are required for all vessels over 24m.
In 2015 a working group was formed to look at ways to reduce juvenile catches of bigeye and yellowfin tuna caught in FAD fishing.
Drift nets are banned in the Mediterranean.
ICCAT maintains lists of vessels authorised to fish for tuna and tuna-like species in the ICCAT area, and those caught carrying out Illegal, Unreported or Unregulated activities.
At-sea transhipment is prohibited unless pre-authorised and the vessel has an observer on board.
In 2017 ICCAT banned the discarding of skipjack, yellowfin and bigeye.
In 2016 the Commission passed measures to strengthen and streamline its compliance assessment process and to develop a scheme of responses to non-compliance.
Criterion score: 0.75 info
The largest proportion of the Atlantic catches (97%) is made using surface-drifting longline, which is associated with the bycatch of vulnerable species, including sharks, sea turtles and seabirds. In the North Atlantic catches are primarily taken by (in order): Spain, USA, Canada, Portugal, Japan and Morocco. Smaller catches are however taken by numerous other countries and other gears including traditional gillnets off the coast of western Africa.
ICCAT aims to take an ecosystem-based and precautionary approach to fisheries management. In order to protect juvenile swordfish, a closure period applies to longline vessels targeting Mediterranean albacore from 1 October to 30 November each year.
For sharks: Countries are required to develop and submit National Plans of Action for the conservation and management of sharks. Sharks must be fully utilised (e.g. no removal of fins); must be released wherever possible (if not being directly targeted); and countries must try to minimise bycatch of sharks (although no gear-specific measures are identified). Catching silky sharks, hammerheads, oceanic whitetips, and bigeye threshers is prohibited, and catching other thresher species is discouraged. Shortfin mako, which is heavily overfished, can be caught and retained if over 180cm for males and 210cm for females, otherwise, they must be released unharmed. An updated assessment in 2019 indicated that shortfin mako is unlikely to recover to healthy levels until 2070, unless size restrictions combined with a fixed Total Allowable Catch were introduced. The maximum catch that would allow recovery by 2070 with a reasonable probability (60%) was 300 tonnes. Regardless of management measures, the stock will continue to decline until 2035. However, in 2019 ICCAT failed to reach agreement on measures to protect this species. Catch limits are now in place for both northern (39,102t as of 2016) and southern (28,923t as of 2016) blue sharks, with the northern TAC being allocated out to countries - a first for ICCAT shark stocks. If exceeded, the commission has committed to reviewing the effectiveness of its blue shark management measures (although preliminary catch of northern blue shark in 2016 was 42,117 t). Porbeagle is overfished throughout the Atlantic, significantly so in the northwest, and for the north Atlantic overall it is predicted to take at least 30 years to recover if there was zero fishing mortality. The main porbeagle-directed fisheries (EU, Uruguay and Canada) have closed, and ICCAT have a recommendation to release live porbeagle unharmed, but it is still caught incidentally and discarded, and also landed by other fleets. Currently there is not enough data to properly assess the status of many pelagic sharks (no assessments have been carried out for the Mediterranean).
For seabirds: There are particular concerns over the status of albatross and petrels. South of 20 degrees South, vessels must use bird-scaring lines. Swordfish vessels are exempt from this if they fish at night and weight their hooks. South of 25 degrees South, vessels must use 2 of the three measures (bird-scarers, night fishing or weighted hooks). In the Mediterranean, these measures are voluntary. However, recommended best practice is to use all three of the aforementioned measures for all longline vessels.
For turtles: Longliners must carry equipment and have training to enable them to safely release turtles that have been caught. Countries are required to research and trial circle hooks for longliners. The scientific committee recommends that longliners targeting swordfish and sharks must use either large circle hooks or finfish bait as mitigation, but as of 2019 this has still not been implemented.
Observer coverage was increased in 2019 (see Management) but is still inadequate for purse seiners targeting species other than tropical tunas, and all longliners.
Based on method of production, fish type, and consumer rating: only fish rated 2 and below are included as an alternative in the list below. Click on a name to show the sustainable options available.Anchovy, anchovies
Herring or sild
Salmon, Atlantic (Farmed)
Salmon, Chum, Keta, Calico or Dog salmon
Salmon, Pink, Spring , humpback
Salmon, Sockeye , Red Salmon, Bluebacks, Redfish
ReferencesEC, 2019. European Commission Press: Good news for tuna and blue sharks, 29.11.2019. Available at https://ec.europa.eu/fisheries/press/good-news-tuna-and-blue-sharks_en [Accessed on 09.12.2019].
ICCAT, 2019. Report of the Standing Committee on Research and Statistics (SCRS) of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, 30 September - 4 October 2019, Madrid, Spain. 459 pp. Available at https://www.iccat.int/Documents/Meetings/Docs/2019/REPORTS/2019_SCRS_ENG.pdf [Accessed on 09.12.2019].
ISSF, 2019. International Seafood Sustainability Foundation Blog: ICCAT Moves to Protect Atlantic Bigeye and Close Gaps in Monitoring and Data Collection, 4 December 2019. Available at https://iss-foundation.org/iccat-moves-to-protect-atlantic-bigeye-and-close-gaps-in-monitoring-and-data-collection/ [Accessed on 09.12.2019].
ISSF, 2019. Status of the world fisheries for tuna. Oct. 2019. ISSF Technical Report 2019-12. International Seafood Sustainability Foundation, Washington, D.C., USA. Available at https://iss-foundation.org/knowledge-tools/technical-and-meeting-reports/download-info/issf-2019-12-status-of-the-world-fisheries-for-tuna-october-2019/ [Accessed on 26.11.2019].
ICCAT, 2018. Resolutions, Recommendations and other Decisions. Available at http://www.iccat.es/en/RecsRegs.asp [Accessed on 11.12.2018].
IPNLF, 2012. Ensuring sustainability of live bait fish, International Pole and Line Foundation, London, 57 pp.