On March 28 in Gloucester, a fisheries hearing will take place regarding perhaps the most iconic and traditional of all Vineyard fish: the magnificent Broadbill Swordfish.
The federal government has recently proposed a new open-access permit that would allow small-boat fishermen to retain and sell swordfish caught by rod and reel or harpoon. By strictly regulating large, industrial-scale vessels, U.S. swordfish have recently become a shining example of responsible and successful management, with all current science pointing to fully-rebuilt stocks. However, even though the numbers of fish have greatly increased, because of limited permits that can cost tens of thousands of dollars, swordfish may at the present time only be harvested and sold by a few large operators. Currently, the majority of swordfish consumed in this country is imported from far away places like Chile, Hawaii and Canada and with the limited permits the U.S. harvested only 56 per cent of the allocated quota in 2011. The new proposal would allow for more U.S.-caught swordfish to be caught, sold and enjoyed here at home.
This new proposed permit, by allowing sustainable, small-scale artisanal fishing, can ensure a healthy swordfish resource for years to come. Although their numbers were at one time greatly harmed by the proliferation of longline fishing and foreign fleets, in recent decades swordfish numbers are returning to the abundance once seen in waters accessible to the Vineyard’s small-boat fleet. For the National Marine Fisheries Service to propose expanding the access to a rebuilt and healthy swordfish population speaks loudly to the recovery of the species. Swordfish are managed internationally, like Atlantic tuna, and the U.S. has some of the strictest minimum size limits in the world — we don’t harvest fish unless they have amply grown past spawning size. As there have been greater restrictions on the U.S. longline fleet — including seasonal closures in certain areas and the mandatory use of “weak” circle hooks (designed to open up if the bait is eaten by a giant bluefin tuna while in their spawning grounds) — the domestic swordfish fleet has in recent years not been able to fully catch our international allocation. Should the U.S. not be able to fully harvest our given quota (again, with the most conservation-minded regulations in the world), that quota will be given to other countries who keep much smaller, pre-spawning age fish.
There are heartbreaking videos online of swordfish barely a few weeks old and the size of pickerel being indiscriminately caught and killed with Mediterranean longlines. With minimum commercial harvest size, these fish can readily grow to hundreds of pounds. The new permit would allow only the use of highly-selective, minimal-impact hand-gear, specifically rod and reel and harpoon, that are the most sustainable and ecologically-friendly fishing methods available. At the same time this would give small boat operators the chance to supplement their ever-dwindling income, while also providing consumers with fresh, locally-caught swordfish they can feel good about buying.
The proposed permit has great potential to benefit Island fishermen, as well as local markets, restaurants and seafood enthusiasts. I remember as a teenager working for Everett Poole at his fish market in Menemsha. The July days when the swordfish boats came in to unload, drawing crowds and smiles all around, were the highlights of those summers for many folks. Vineyard fishermen may again have the chance to bring fresh, local, sustainably-caught swordfish to market and to continue a traditional fishery that goes back for generations.
Hopefully, in the coming summer and for many more we will see the welcome sign in Island fish markets and restaurants bearing the words “Fresh Local Swordfish,” and we all will be able to enjoy one of the sea’s great delicacies while supporting the Island’s local fishing fleet. Such an opportunity to restore a traditional and sustainable fishery may indeed be at hand.
Capt. Alex Friedman is the president of the Martha’s Vineyard/Dukes County Fishermen’s Association.