Swordfish

Xiphias gladius

Method of production — Caught at sea
Capture method — Longline
Capture area — Pacific, South (FAO 81,87) and Eastern Central (FAO 77)
Stock area — South East Pacific
Stock detail — All Areas
Picture of Swordfish

Sustainability rating five info

Sustainability overview

Updated: November 2019 

The swordfish stock in the northern East Pacific Ocean is managed primarily by the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC), but there is no recent stock assessment (the last one dating back to 2011). Catches increased significantly from around 2,000 t in 1985 to peak at in 2016, and recent catches (29,232t on average from 2013-2017) exceed the estimated Maximum Sustainable Yield (~25,000 t). Catch in 2017 was below these levels, at around 24,000t, but the recent high catches indicate that there is concern for levels of fishing pressure on the stock. Longline effort has steadily increased from 111 million hooks in 2008 to 174 million hooks in 2016 and was responsible for over three quarters of the catch in 2017. It is not clear whether the increase in catches is due to increased abundance of swordfish or increased effort directed toward that species. There are no specific IATTC management measures for swordfish, although management measures that apply to directed tuna fisheries are expected to also benefit swordfish stocks. Most of the swordfish is caught in longline fisheries but smaller quantities of are taken in artisanal harpoon and gill net fisheries off the coast of South America. Pelagic gill nets are associated with high levels of bycatch of shark, birds, other billfish and endangered marine turtles. There are few effective measures to prevent mortality of these animals caught in these nets and the reporting of such incidents is very poor. Harpooning, whilst labour intensive, is a very selective method of fishing with minimal impact on the marine ecosystem. Longlining, on the other hand, accounts for the majority of catches. It targets larger, mature fish but is often associated with the bycatch of vulnerable species such as seabirds, turtles and sharks. IATTC requires a number of mitigation measures and countries must develop national plans of action to address the bycatch of these species, but measures are often not following best practice or are not supported by sufficient data and research. Increasing observer coverage to at least 20% would improve the situation, but only 5% is required. Of greatest concern is the impact on Eastern Pacific leatherback turtles, which have seen a dramatic decline in the past 20 years driven by bycatch by longliners and gillnetters.

Commercial buyers in particular should establish what measures the flag state and or fleet is taking to improve deficiencies in reporting interactions with vulnerable species and specify the need for ongoing and demonstrable improvements. Large buyers should consider supporting such improvements.

Biology

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 South-East Pacific Ocean (SEPO), spawning takes place in summer months. Usually solitary, it forms large schools during spawning. A fast growing fish, swordfish in the SEPO mature at 2-3 years of age, when they 115-120cm (males) and 165-175cm (females).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.

Stock information

Criterion score: 0.75 info

Stock Area

South East Pacific

Stock information

The South-east Pacific swordfish stock is managed by the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC).

The most recent stock assessment uses data up to 2011, and indicated that the stock was not experiencing overfishing and was not overfished (Spawning biomass, SB, at 1.45SBmsy). Spawning biomass had decreased to a low of about 43,000 t in 1993 and had been increasing since, reaching about 135,000 t in 2010. However, this assessment is not up to date and so data limited scoring has been applied. Swordfish have a medium resilience to fishing pressure.

Catches increased significantly from around 2,000 t in 1985 to peak at in 2016, and recent catches (29,232t on average from 2013-2017) exceed the estimated Maximum Sustainable Yield (~25,000 t). Catch in 2017 was below these levels, at around 24,000t, but the recent high catches indicate that there is concern for levels of fishing pressure on the stock. Longline effort has steadily increased from 111 million hooks in 2008 to 174 million hooks in 2016.

It is not clear whether the increase in catches is due to increased abundance of swordfish or increased effort directed toward that species. There is no indication of a significant impact of fishing on this stock. However, given the high recent catches a new stock assessment is needed to gain a better understanding of current stock status.

Management

Criterion score: 0.75 info

As with tuna, individual swordfish stocks range across and are accessed by numerous coastal states, making harmonised and effective management of these individual stocks very difficult. As a result, 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, including swordfish. Whilst the RFMOs, in this case the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC), 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 so it is important to buy tuna and swordfish that has been caught in fisheries that are well regulated by their flag state.

The main countries reporting swordfish catches in this region are Chile, Japan and Spain.

IATTC has no specific management measures in place for swordfish, and indeed no stock assessments on which to base any measures. There is no Total Allowable Catch (TAC) set for either swordfish stock (north and south EPO). Management measures that apply to directed tuna fisheries, in particular albacore and bigeye, are expected to also benefit swordfish stocks. 5% observer coverage is required on longliners greater than 20m, although this is considered to be too low for accurate data: a minimum of 20% coverage is recommended. In addition, data recorded by IATTC longliners is considered inadequate for scientific purposes and minimum data standards need to be identified and introduced. To help address IUU, an IUU Vessel List is maintained as well as a register of authorised fishing vessels; transhipments at sea for most vessels are prohibited (some exemptions apply) and most other transhipments must be documented and observed as part of the regional observer programme.
Countries are required to report annually on monitoring, control and compliance of management measures.
The IATTC and WCPFC endeavour to work together to promote compatibility between their respective conservation and management measures across the Pacific.

Capture Information

Criterion score: 1 info

In the South-east Pacific Ocean, swordfish are mostly caught in mixed species longline fisheries by Chilean, Japanese and Spanish fleets. In recent years, Spain has dominated catches. Much smaller quantities are taken in artisanal harpoon and gill net fisheries off the coast of South America.

Longlining targets larger, mature fish yet is often associated with the bycatch of vulnerable species such as seabirds, turtles and sharks. To address this, IATTC requires a number of mitigation measures and countries must develop national plans of action to address the bycatch of sharks, turtles and seabirds.

Seabirds: Feeding opportunities for some seabird species are dependent on the presence of tuna schools feeding near the surface. Some seabirds, especially albatrosses (waved (Phoebastria irrorata), black-footed (P. nigripes), Laysan (P. immutabilis), and black-browed (Thalassarche melanophrys)) and petrels, are susceptible to being caught on baited hooks in pelagic longline fisheries. There is particular concern for the waved albatross, because it is endemic to the EPO and nests only in the Galapagos Islands. Longliners must use one or more seabird bycatch mitigation measures from a set list of options, depending on vessel size and fishing location, including weighted branch line, bird scaring lines, and night setting. However, recommended best practice is for those three measures to be applied simultaneously.

Turtles: IATTC note that tuna fisheries in the Eastern Pacific are having an adverse effect on sea turtle populations, and there is particular concern over the marked decline in the number of nesting female leatherback turtles (3,000 in 1990; 300 in 2015). The Eastern Pacific sub-population of leatherbacks is classified as Critically Endangered and at risk of extinction in the area. Bycatch and fishery interactions are the primary cause of the decline, and gillnets and longlines are the primary cause of bycatch - specifically in the southern and central Eastern Pacific (from Chile to Mexico). Better observer coverage and bycatch reduction in the next 5 years (by 2025) are critical. IATTC have noted that mortality rates of turtles due to longlining are possibly greater for those that set their lines at shallower depths at night for albacore and swordfish. In addition, there is a sizeable fleet of artisanal longline vessels from coastal nations that also impact sea turtles. Vessels must carry line cutters and de-hookers to promptly release turtles or to foster to recovery any sick or comatose turtles captured. All interactions with sea turtles must be recorded. In 2019 additional measures were brought in for shallow-set longliners: one of the following mitigation measures must be used: large circle hooks, or only finfish for bait, or other measures if and when they are approved by the Commission.

Sharks: In 2018, all forms of purse seining combined caught 505 tonnes of sharks. Longlining caught 13,680t. Permissible sharks are to be fully utilized and no more than 5% of fins to total shark weight can be retained and there is a prohibition to land oceanic whitetips and silky sharks, and mobula rays. Shark lines are prohibited. For fisheries specifically targeting sharks, countries are required to develop management plans, demonstrating how they intend to avoid or reduce catches of highly depleted shark species. Any shark (whether alive or dead) caught that is not retained must be promptly released unharmed, following safe release requirements. There are special measures to protect silky sharks, including a limit on bycatch of silky sharks to a maximum of 20% of the total catch by fishing trip in weight and for surface longliners, no more than 20% of the silk shark catch can be individuals below 100cm. This limit is an interim measure, to be replaced when there is enough data for a stock assessment of the species (although a resolution was passed in 2016 requiring stock assessments, and as of 2019 there is still not enough data). Fishing in silky shark pupping areas is prohibited, although these areas do not appear to have been clearly defined.

Monitoring and reporting is deficient in many fisheries, and the effectiveness of these measures has not been evaluated. In 2016 IATTC introduced stricter monitoring and reporting of catches of shark species, but the scientific committee continues to advise that shark data collection is inadequate and must be improved - it is currently not possible to assess the state of most sharks and mobulid ray species. The scientific committee also recommends that experiments be conducted on mitigating bycatches of sharks, especially in longline fisheries, and on the survival of sharks and mobulid rays captured by all gear types, with priority given to those gears with significant catches. The scientific committee has also recommended stricter requirements for seabird mitigation techniques and proof of effectiveness before new techniques are introduced. Only 5% observer coverage is required on longliners greater than 20m in length, although the scientific committee recommends 20% coverage and improved standards of data collection. Despite strong recommendations to increase coverage as part of the urgent measures to protect leatherback turtles, a new resolution on observer coverage in 2019 kept the minimum at 5%, although consideration of electronic monitoring systems is planned in 2020.

Alternatives

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
Arctic char
Herring or sild
Mackerel
Salmon, Atlantic (Farmed)
Salmon, Chum, Keta, Calico or Dog salmon
Salmon, Pink, Spring , humpback
Salmon, Sockeye , Red Salmon, Bluebacks, Redfish
Swordfish
Trout, Rainbow
Tuna, albacore
Tuna, skipjack
Tuna, yellowfin

References

ACAP, 2019. ACAP Review and Best Practice Advice for Reducing the Impact of Pelagic Longline Fisheries on Seabirds, Reviewed at the Eleventh Meeting of the Advisory Committee of the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels, 13 - 17 May 2019, Florianopolis, Brazil. Available at https://www.acap.aq/en/bycatch-mitigation/mitigation-advice/3498-acap-2019-review-and-best-practice-advice-for-reducing-the-impact-of-pelagic-longline-fisheries-on-seabirds/file [Accessed on 29.11.2019].

Dias, M. P., Martin. R., Pearmain, E., J., Burfield, I. J., Small, C., Phillips, R. A., Yates, O., Lascelles, B., Garcia Borboroglu, P. and Croxall, J. P., 2019. Threats to seabirds: A global assessment. Biol. Cons. 237, pp 525-537. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2019.06.033 [Accessed on 29.11.2019].

Froese R. and Pauly D. (Editors), 2019. Xiphias gladius, Swordfish. Available at: https://www.fishbase.de/summary/Xiphias-gladius.html [Accessed on 02.12.2019].

IATTC, 2019. Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission: Active IATTC and AIDCP Resolutions and Recommendations. Available at https://www.iattc.org/ResolutionsActiveENG.htm [Accessed on 02.12.2019].

IATTC, 2019. Report on the tuna fishery, stocks, and ecosystem in the Eastern Pacific Ocean in 2018, Document IATTC-94-01 presented to the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission 94th Meeting, 22-26 July 2019, Bilbao, Spain. 125pp. Available at https://www.iattc.org/Meetings/Meetings2019/IATTC-94/Docs/_English/IATTC-94-01_The%20tuna%20fishery,%20stocks,%20and%20ecosystem%20in%20the%20Eastern%20Pacific%20Ocean%20in%202018.pdf [Accessed on 02.12.2019].

IATTC, 2019. The tuna fishery in the Eastern Pacific Ocean in 2018 (revised). Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission Scientific Advisory Committee Tenth Meeting, 13-17 May 2019, San Diego, California (USA). 49pp. Available at https://www.iattc.org/Meetings/Meetings2019/SAC-10/Docs/_English/SAC-10-03-REV-14-May-19_The%20tuna%20fishery%20in%20the%20EPO%20in%202018.pdf [Accessed on 03.12.2019].

ISC, 2019. Report of the Nineteenth Meeting of the International Scientific Committee for Tuna and Tuna-Like Species in the North Pacific Ocean, 11-15 July 2019, Taipei City, Taiwan. Available at http://isc.fra.go.jp/pdf/ISC19/ISC19_PLENARY_Report_FINAL.pdf [Accessed on 29.11.2019].

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].

Wallace, B., 2019. A call for collaboration between IAC and IATTC to save Eastern Pacific leatherbacks. Presented to the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission Scientific Advisory Committee Tenth Meeting, 13-17 May 2019, San Diego, California, USA. Available at https://www.iattc.org/Meetings/Meetings2019/SAC-10/BYC-09/Presentations/BYC-09-PRES_A%20call%20for%20collaboration%20between%20IAC%20and%20IATTC%20to%20save%20Eastern%20Pacific%20leatherbacks.pdf [Accessed on 02.12.2019].