Swordfish is the king of the sea for many Vineyarders. In Menemsha, signs of its once glorious past still dot the landscape. There is a sculpture near Menemsha Beach called the Swordfish Harpooner created by Jay Lagemann in 1994, and the Menemsha Texaco weathervane is a swordfish. Some of the fish shacks still showcase the tail of the fish nailed to the shingles and hung like a trophies.
At one point swordfish used to swim close to the Squibnocket shore, but 30 years ago they began disappearing from these waters. Local fishermen had to go farther and farther east, to the edge of Georges Bank to find them.
Sixteen years ago there was a national campaign to boycott eating swordfish because of concerns that it was both badly managed worldwide and severely overfished.
The king of fish was no more, and its presence in Vineyard life sadly diminished.
Richard Ellis, an author of many books on fish and the ocean, has devoted a whole book to swordfish. He is a maritime journalist who gathers the pieces of a complicated topic and brings it to life. But there is nothing simple about telling the swordfish story: its science, its history and its decline.
In the mid-1900s, swordfish was a huge part of Canadian maritime fishing, especially in Nova Scotia. Swordfish, like all the pelagic fish, touches many shores. It affects the lives of commercial and recreational fishermen and their families and communities worldwide. Today, swordfish still are pursued by fishermen in boats of every size and speed. They are caught in all sizes, from hundreds of pounds to less than 40 pounds.
“Like tuna, swordfish have no scales, the better to pass through the water smoothly,” Mr. Ellis writes. “Some regard the swordfish as the most powerful fish in the ocean; its ability to drive its sword through a foot or more of a ship’s oak planking supports such a contention. The swordfish’s dorsal coloration has been described as iridescent purple, bronze, brownish-black, blue-gray, or dark silver, but the belly is always silvery-white. Aside from the spear, the most prominent features of the sword fish are its enormous eyes, as big as an orange, and a brilliant blue in life.”
This is a fish that swims to the deepest parts of the ocean and displays almost human-like anger when it is caught. If Herman Melville had fished out of Menemsha on a swordfishing boat, Moby-Dick would not have been a whale.
In addition to being a commercial fishery, swordfish are a game fish and several parts of the book are devoted to the sport and the sportsmen. Ernest Hemingway pursued them, as did many of his contemporaries. When the fish was doing well, it was not unusual to hear of anglers landing fish in excess of 500 pounds. A female swordfish can reach 1,000 pounds.
In 1977 anglers in Fort Lauderdale held their first swordfish tournament and it was a great success. Six years later, the tournament ended for lack of fish. No fish were caught nor seen.
“Swordfish have been targeted by commercial fishers for centuries,” writes Mr. Ellis. “The early fishermen who used harpoons and spears had a deleterious effect on individual swordfish but were of little consequence to swordfish populations as a whole. It was not until the introduction of longlines, unquestionably the deadliest (and most effective) fishing method ever devised that the swordfish populations began to tumble.”
Longline fishing involves ships cruising the ocean, trailing miles and miles of monofilament fishing line with thousands of baited hooks.
There is a positive side to the swordfishing story, though. The fishery has recovered somewhat and U.S. fisheries managers have relaxed their restrictive regulations. The changes will not bring harpooning back to New England like we remember, but the fish will return in greater abundance to local fish markets and restaurants. The boycott is long over, but the question as to whether it is right to eat swordfish again lingers. My answer is yes, eat swordfish if it is harpooned or handlined. Avoid longlined imported swordfish.
In his book, Mr. Ellis credits the efforts of conservationists and public awareness in bringing the swordfish back. And this is the swordfish’s biggest story — survival.
Swordfish, A Biography of the Ocean Gladiator. By Richard Ellis, The University of Chicago Press, 280 pages, illustrated, photographs. Hardcover $26.