Swordfish

Xiphias gladius

Method of production — Caught at sea
Capture method — Longline
Capture area — Mediterranean (FAO 37)
Stock area — Mediterranean
Stock detail

All Areas


Picture of Swordfish

Sustainability rating five info

Sustainability overview

The latest assessment carried out in 2016 indicates that the stock is significantly overfished and subject to significant overfishing and has been in this state since the late 1980s. Projections suggest that reducing fishing mortality by 20% could return spawning biomass to the levels seen in the late 80s within 8-12 years. The ICCAT Scientific Committee noted in 2016 that fish less than three years old (mostly juvenile) usually represent 50-70% of the total yearly catches in terms of numbers. A 15 year recovery plan began in 2017, continuing to 2031, with the goal of achieving the target stock status (Bmsy) with 60% probability - it is too early to assess the effect of these measures on the stock. Among the measures, the plan includes: a total allowable catch (including bycatch) reducing by 3% each year from 2018-2022, a capacity limitation for the duration of the plan, a limit on the number of fishing vessels authorised to fish for Mediterranean swordfish, a 3 month closure for all vessels, and a simultaneous 2 month closure for longliners targeting Mediterranean albacore. Pelagic longlining in the ICCAT area and Mediterranean 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, yet this is not being complied with by several countries and 20% coverage is recommended.

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 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.

Stock information

Criterion score: 1 info

Stock Area

Mediterranean

Stock information

Swordfish fisheries in the Mediterranean are assessed by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT). Swordfish stocks were significantly overfished in the 1980s, when the fishery rapidly expanded. From 1998 - 2011 annual catch levels fluctuated between 12,000-16,000 t. As reported for other species in the Mediterranean, these levels are relatively high and similar to those of bigger areas such as the North Atlantic. This could be related to higher recruitment levels in the Mediterranean than in the North Atlantic, different reproduction strategies (larger spawning areas in relation to the area of distribution of the stock) and the lower abundance of large pelagic predators (e.g. sharks) in the Mediterranean. Catches in recent years have decreased to approximately 10,000t (the average from 2011-2015 was 10,166) but preliminary catch for 2016 was 8,954 t, one of the lowest since 1983. It is thought that changes to key fishing methods and the new regulations are mostly responsible for these reductions. The latest assessment carried out in 2016 indicates with a 100% probability that the stock is significantly overfished (Spawning Stock Biomass, SSB, at 0.12SSBmsy) and is subject to significant overfishing (Fishing mortality, F, 1.85Fmsy) and has been in this state since the late 80s. Projections suggest that reducing fishing mortality by 20% could return SSB to the levels seen in the late 80s within 8-12 years. MSY is currently estimated to be 19,683 t.

The Scientific Committee noted in 2016 the large catches of small size swordfish, i.e. less than 3 years old (many of which have probably never spawned) and the relatively low number of large individuals in the catches. Fish less than three years old usually represent 50-70% of the total yearly catches in terms of numbers. A reduction of the volume of juvenile catches would improve yield per recruit and spawning biomass per recruit levels.

The next stock assessment is expected in 2019.

Management

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.

Countries are required to make efforts to reduce the mortality of juvenile Mediterranean swordfish, particularly with respect to longlining. Management measures to date have resulted in reported catches decreasing significantly from those during the 2000s, with catches from 2012-2016 among the lower of the last three decades. In addition, reported catches of juvenile swordfish of less than 90 cm have also decreased more than 50%, compared with the levels of the decade of 2000s. Better monitoring of landings and discards is needed to improve the certainty of future assessments. A 15 year recovery plan began in 2017, continuing to 2031, with the goal of achieving the target stock status (Bmsy) with 60% probability - it is too early to assess the effect of these measures on the stock. The plan includes the following measures:
The TAC (Total Allowable Catch) in 2017 is 10,500 t (including bycatch), reducing by 3% each year from 2018-2022. ICCAT is looking to establish a way to fairly distribute this across countries.
There is a capacity limitation for the duration of the plan. In 2017 countries must limit the number of their fishing vessels authorised to fish for Mediterranean swordfish to the average from 2013-2016.
There is a 3 month closure for all vessels, and to protect juvenile swordfish a simultaneous 2 month closure also applies to longliners targeting Mediterranean albacore.
Swordfish must be kept whole, and must be longer than 100cm or heavier than 10.2kg (although incidental catch of fish below these limits is allowed as long as it doesn’t exceed 5% of total catch).
Longliners may not set more than 2,500 hooks, which must be larger than 7cm, and the lines may be no longer than 55km.
All vessels, including sport and recreational (rod and line only), must be authorised before they can fish for this species. Sport and recreational vessels can only catch 1 Mediterranean swordfish per day. Fish can only be landed in designated ports, and transhipment is prohibited. 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%, which may not have been implemented by many fleets, although some fleets are currently implementing voluntary observer programmes that cover 100% of fishing trips. This is in spite of scientific committee recommendation of 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.

Capture Information

Criterion score: 0.75 info

The biggest producers of swordfish in the Mediterranean Sea in recent years (2003-2015) have been Italy (45%), Morocco (14%), Spain (13%), Greece (10%) and Tunisia (7%). There are two main fishing gears used in the fishery. Longlining represents 85% of the annual catch and is associated with the bycatch of vulnerable species, including sharks, sea turtles and seabirds. Gillnets are the other main gear. While drifting gillnets have been for the most part eliminated following an EU ban in 2002 and ICCAT recommendations in 2012, some fisheries are still known to employ them either illegally or through loopholes in the regulation. Minor catches are also reported from harpoon, trap and fisheries targeting other large pelagic species (e.g. albacore).

Several countries have also adopted additional fishery restrictions at the national level. The surface longline gear in several Italian and Spanish swordfish fleets has been partially replaced by deeper set (mesopelagic) longline gear. Reported catches have decreased significantly, with average catches of juvenile swordfish (less than 90 cm) from the last two years decreasing by 54% compared with the levels in the 2000s. However, fish less than three years old usually represent 50-70% of the total yearly catches in terms of numbers (only 25-30% in weight). These large catches of small swordfish, many of which have never spawned, and the low number of large individuals in the catch are cause for concern.

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). Sharks 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 can be caught and retained, but as of 2017 the country’s law must require a minimum length of 180cm for males and 210cm for females, otherwise, shortfin makos caught alive must be released unharmed. This is expected to prevent the stock’s currently poor state from worsening, and a rebuilding plan will be developed for 2019. In 2016 additional measures for blue shark were introduced, mainly focussed on improved data recording, with potential to introduce Harvest Control Rules. A catch limit of 39,102 t was also introduced in the north Atlantic (but none for the south Atlantic): if exceeded the commission has committed to reviewing the effectiveness of its blue shark management measures. Preliminary catch 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 mentioned. 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 this has not been implemented.

There is a mandatory level of observer coverage of 5%, which may not have been implemented by many fleets, in spite of scientific committee recommendation of a minimum of 20% for accurate reporting of bycatch. However, some fleets are currently implementing voluntary observer programmes that cover 100% of fishing trips.

References

ICCAT, 2017. Report of the Standing Committee on Research and Statistics (SCRS) of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, 2-6 October 2017, Madrid, Spain. 465 pp. Available at http://www.iccat.int/com2017 [Accessed on 27.11.2017].

ICCAT, 2017. Resolutions, Recommendations and other Decisions. Available at http://www.iccat.es/en/RecsRegs.asp [Accessed on 12.12.2017]