If you want swordfish for dinner tomorrow, skip it today
by Paul Rauber
The historian's game of "counterfactualism" looks at how small events might have
changed history. If Annie Oakley had missed when she shot the ash off Crown
Prince Wilhelm's cigar, two world wars might never have happened.
If diners in the past century had stopped ordering passenger pigeon when its
numbers started to drop, flocks of that now-extinct bird might still darken the
Altering the course of events can be more than a parlor game. What if people
refused to sit back and watch the extinction of the North Atlantic swordfish?
Across the country, scores of restaurants have banished swordfish from their
menus in a yearlong hiatus called "Give Swordfish a Break."
The pause in consumption of one of the world's tastiest fish is being organized
by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the SeaWeb project, and some of
the country's leading chefs. Nora Pouillon, owner of the Nora and Asia Nora
restaurants in Washington, D.C., hasn't served swordfish for five years. "As a
restaurant we want to get the big center cuts, but the swordfish offered by my
purveyor became smaller and smaller," she says. "I realized that we had already
overfished the adult swordfish, and now we were consuming the teenagers."
"I don't even remember the last time I had a big swordfish," says Eric Ripert of
Le Bernardin in New York City. "If we don't stop overfishing, I'm afraid that in
ten years it won't exist at all
In the 1960s, when Atlantic swordfish were caught by harpooning, they averaged
over 250 pounds. Since the introduction of longlines-baited hooks strung out for
tens of miles-the average has fallen to 90 pounds. Total tonnage has declined by
40 percent in the past decade, and nearly two-thirds of the swordfish caught in
the North Atlantic are too young to breed. (The legal minimum size is only 33
pounds, well below reproductive maturity.) The U.S. swordfish quota is set by the
International Convention on the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna, a body that,
according to the NRDC, "has failed to prevent overfishing and depletion of
virtually every fish population it purports to manage." (In his book Song for the
Blue Ocean, marine conservationist Carl Safina suggests that ICCAT "might well
stand for International Conspiracy to Catch All the Tunas.")
Predictably, the fishing industry objects to the swordfish crusade, which the
National Fisheries Institute falsely portrays as an "animal-rights activist
campaign," suggesting that it might fall under a "food disparagement law," like
the one Oprah Winfrey was sued under in Texas. Rebecca Lent, head of the National
Marine Fisheries Service's Highly Migratory Species Division, calls the campaign
"misguided" and insists that "we are fishing at a level that should allow the
stock to stabilize and, in another year or two, start to rebuild."
But the Sustainable Fisheries Act signed by President Clinton in 1996 demands
more than a halt to the decline: it calls for replenishing the swordfish
population within ten years. According to NRDC senior policy analyst Lisa Speer,
"It's not even clear that the current quotas will arrest the decline." Indeed,
the U.S. fleet was actually allowed to increase its total tonnage by about 8
percent last year, because ICCAT no longer requires that discarded dead or dying
juvenile fish be counted. And even though it means killing 40,000 juvenile
swordfish (as it did in 1996), the United States must catch its full ICCAT quota.
Thus, notes Speer, "the most effective action the United States could
take-reducing the domestic swordfish quota-is prohibited under U.S. law."
But there's no law that says consumers have to play along. The chefs' campaign
continues to grow; a new supporter is the Royal Caribbean cruise line, which has
canceled orders for 20 tons of swordfish. Organizers hope the consumer revolt
will convince the United States to demand tough action at the next ICCAT meeting
this November. If the swordfish is restored to full strength, twice as much fish
will be available. If it is allowed to collapse, our seas-and our plates-stay