NEW YORK -- Two environmentalist groups are urging consumers not to eat swordfish, in a national campaign to save what they claim is a rapidly dwindling North Atlantic swordfish population.
The Natural Resources Defense Council, based here, and SeaWeb, based in Washington, launched the "Give Swordfish a Break" campaign in late January, calling on restaurants to stop serving swordfish until the seafood industry institutes series of changes in the way the species is fished commercially.
"We are asking chefs not to serve, and consumers not to purchase, swordfish from the North Atlantic during 1998 until adequate conservation measures to restore swordfish are adopted," said the two environmental groups in a joint statement. According to the NRDC, about 25 millions pounds of swordfish are consumed annually in the United States.
As of last week, the campaign had gotten pledges from more than 30 restaurants claiming they would not serve swordfish during 1998, the Year of the Ocean, its organizers said.
A senior policy analyst at NRDC, Lisa Speer, said the campaign's next goal would be to tackle the retail front.
"We would like to expand to retail sometime this year," said Speer in an interview with SN. If retailers decide to participate, "we would ask them not to offer swordfish from the North Atlantic until adequate recovery measures have been adopted by the federal government," explained Speer.
Organizers said the objective is to spread the campaign up and down the East Coast, and to encourage stores and wholesalers to join the effort.
Among the changes called for by the campaign are a greater level of protection for key nursery areas; a requirement that discarded fish be counted against quotas; an increase in the minimum size of swordfish that may be kept in a catch and a requirement that juvenile fish be released alive; a reduction in the length of longlines; and an imposition of import restrictions on undersized fish.
Vikki Spruill, the executive director of SeaWeb, said that the "goal in the campaign is for consumers to become more involved in the overfishing crisis, and we think the best way to do that is through the food on their plates."
The environmental organizations' efforts are concentrating on North Atlantic swordfish because "swordfish populations elsewhere are generally not as depleted," said organizers. The term North Atlantic was defined as "the entire Atlantic Ocean north of 5 degrees north latitude."
Representing the industry, the National Fisheries Institute, Arlington, Va., said it shares the two organization's concerns about the condition of overfished species. However, it expressed in a statement that it didn't believe that an antimarketing campaign was necessary or would resolve the problems of overfishing.
"We think the objective of conservation is a good one, but the methods for carrying out the campaign are not going to help the situation," said Niels Moore, the NFI's government relations representative.
"In our view, the expert scientists and officials who are responsible for conserving these swordfish stocks, and who have authorized their harvest, are better qualified to judge what is needed for conservation than the self-appointed advocates of this boycott campaign," added the NFI's executive vice president, Richard Gutting, in a statement.
The NFI's Moore conceded that "swordfish crossed the overfishing line some time ago," but he added that he believed the situation would be rectified. "A mechanism is now in place that will ensure a quota and compliance to that quota that will ensure the sustainability of this stock," he explained.
The NRDC's Speer argued that current quotas were not sufficient to ensure against depletion of swordfish stocks. "We are asking for intervention action to reduce the overall quota for the North Atlantic swordfish population," she said.
The NFI's Moore said the full effects of recent quotas were yet to be felt. "What's required now is patience on behalf of consumers and environmentalists to allow these strict regulations to bear fruit," he explained.
"The problem in the past was that other foreign nations didn't abide by the quotas," he explained. And "the most obvious flaw [in the campaign] is by encouraging people to flatly avoid swordfish from the North Atlantic, the people who are going to be hurt are American fishermen.
"Our consumers are getting the false impression that they are promoting conservation by sacrificing swordfish meals, when in fact not consuming this fish has no bearing on the total harvest. If we don't catch our quota other nations will catch it for us," continued Moore.
Both SeaWeb and the NRDC said a main concern is the amount of undersized catch resulting from commercial fishing vessels' use of longlines -- which can stretch for miles -- to snare their prey. "One of the things we are asking the federal government to do is to protect nursing areas," said the NRDC's Speer.
In response, the NFI's Moore noted that if "the main concern is that there are a lot of juvenile swordfish entering the market, they could [ask restaurants and retail operations to] demand only mature fish.
"If retailers are concerned about seeing too many small fish, they should demand larger fish," he added. "If they are concerned about the sustainability of stocks, then they should contact their representatives and encourage them to apply pressure on foreign nationals who haven't complied with the international regulations."
The NRDC said the method of harvesting, not market demands, are the problem, and that the majority of swordfish caught on longlines are juveniles. In 1996, it said, longliners discarded some 40,000 swordfish (most of which were dead) principally because the fish are under the minimum size.
The environmentalists also noted that "U.S. fishermen are likely to benefit from U.S. action to protect swordfish. Restoring the population back up to a level where it can produce the maximum sustainable yield will roughly double the amount of fish available for everyone."
The NFI representatives, meanwhile, claim that forces behind the environmentalists' campaign need to be more closely examined. "If you look at the alliances of the people involved in this campaign, it raises a lot of questions about the motives [behind it]," Moore said.
"Sport fishermen appear to have joined forces with animal rights activists, who believe for moral or philosophical reasons that humans should not eat other animals," Gutting said.
"If commercial fishermen don't catch swordfish for restaurants and supermarkets, sports fishermen will, and this accounts for their involvement in this campaign," said Moore.
"In reality, this debate really has more to do with who should get the fish, or whether fish should be harvested at all, than it has to do with the biological condition of the stocks," the NFI said in a statement responding to the campaign launch.
SeaWeb's Spruill told SN sports fishermen are not "officially involved" in the campaign. "We have a good working relationship with the sports fishing associations but they are not involved in this campaign at all," she said.
Mike Leech, president of the International Game Fishing Association, Pompano Beach, Fla., said his organization has "never been officially involved with the swordfish campaign."
Leech added that although it is not directly involved, his organization was aware and supportive of the campaign. "We are also campaigning for better swordfish management."