After steaming overnight 10 hours from Shag Harbour, Nova Scotia, I woke 100 miles at sea. We’re at one of the most famous fishing areas in the northwest Atlantic Ocean: Georges Bank. No one would call the water as I first laid eyes on it calm, but we expect it to lay down a bit.
I’m with producer John Angier; we’re here to film part of our next episode of our PBS television series Saving The Ocean. Every episode of our show profiles people who have a solution. Check it out online at: pbs.org/saving-the-ocean.
We’re on the Four Ladies, a 50-foot boat that is, rather amazingly 23-feet wide, built for lobstering (which it does in winter and spring), rigged for swordfish harpooning—which is now. Rigging for harpooning means fitting the boat with a 30-foot-high “spar” or “crow’s nest” for spotting fish, and a 22-foot-long forward stand or “pulpit” from which the “striker” wields the harpoon.
We’re here not only because it’s a clean fishery but also because swordfish in the west Atlantic are the only large ocean fish in the world that are more abundant now than they were a decade or two ago. Sharks, tunas, marlins—they’ve all declined. Inshore, where hordes of cod and pollock and halibut once ruled, our skipper says there’s “nothing left to catch there.” And while this population of swordfish was in very bad shape by the late 1990s—it’s recovering.
Why? Three things: 1) In the late 1990s I and several conservation groups sued the U.S. fisheries service, demanding that it close to fishing with longlines several areas in the southern U.S. where small swordfish congregate. Longlines are miles-long fishing lines with hundreds of baited hooks. Longlines catch anything with an appetite (tunas, sharks, sea turtles, marlin, seabirds—) and are poor for discriminating size or species. So there’s a lot of waste. In the areas we sued over, they were killing and throwing away tens of thousands of little swordfish too small to sell. We won, taking a lot of the pressure off the baby fish. 2) Around the same time, NRDC and SeaWeb spearheaded a “Give Swordfish A Break” campaign by celebrity chefs. Eating swordfish became un-cool and the price fell. The groups said they’d call off the campaign when the international fisheries commission brought the swordfish catch quota in line with scientists’ recommendations. When it finally did, the campaign ended in success. 3) Rocketing prices for tuna for sushi caused many longliners to switch to targeting tuna, which was very bad news for tuna but took a lot of the pressure off swordfish.