- Longlines and drift gillnets, fisheries with extremely high bycatch rates (of other species unintentionally caught in fishing gear) and known negative impact on IUCN Red List species (those most at risk for extinction), are the most common gear used by international swordfish fisheries.
- Longlines are the most common fishing gear used to catch swordfish internationally by large-scale industrial fisheries, while drift gillnets remain a common gear type among small-scale fisheries.
- Only 5% of the world’s total swordfish catch comes from American fishermen, but America is one of the world’s largest importers of swordfish.
- Swordfish are typically caught as part of commercial tuna fisheries.
- Because swordfish are a highly migratory species, international fisheries often work together under the same regulations, and many countries’ fisheries are included in larger regulating groups covering wide regions. Unfortunately, this means that if these regulating groups do not strictly enforce their rules, entire ocean regions will suffer from the lack of enforcement across multiple countries.
- Over 50 countries export swordfish and tuna to America., with the following featured countries making up significant portions of these exports.
Australia and New Zealand
- Longlines are the main fishery in both countries.
- Bycatch regulations are lacking and less regulated than overfishing laws.
- Sea turtles and sharks are frequently caught in longlines in this region, but because of underreporting of bycatch, the exact mortality rates from the past decade are not known.
- Blue sharks, a near threatened IUCN species, and shortfin mako sharks, a vulnerable IUCN species, are regularly reported to be caught in longlines. Interactions with other IUCN shark species remain underreported. An estimated 80% of longline bycatch in the WACPFC’s regulated region is the blue shark, with mako sharks and thresher sharks, another vulnerable IUCN species, each representing another 3%.
- Shark research programs were initiated by the The Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission to improve statistics on shark bycatch.
- New Zealand placed some restrictions on how many sharks caught as bycatch can be kept for commercial use, and implemented some gear that allows more sharks to break free; however, up until 2014, shark finning in New Zealand was still legal, and conservation groups have criticized the new regulations for not being effective enough.
- Overfishing is managed through total allowable catch limits, which is adjusted yearly based on population estimates and environmental impact. Fishermen are required to fill out records on all fish caught both while fishing and once they return to the dock.
- Overall, Australia and New Zealand both have better management and reporting than many other countries on this list, though improvements are needed in observing and reducing bycatch.
Chile, Ecuador, and Panama
- Longlines are the major commercial fishery of all three countries, in addition to a significant industrial drift gillnet fishery, particularly in Chile. Small-scale fisheries also frequently use drift gillnets throughout the region.
- Bycatch is largely unregulated and unreported. There are also no fishing limits for swordfish in this region, aside from a size limit in Chile.
- Observer coverage is low (5% required, but only 2% was reported between 2007 and 2013) in the Chilean drift gillnet fishery. Seafood Watch rated the Chilean drift gillnet fishery as having a critical impact on other species, and having critically low management effectiveness.
- Ecuador’s small-scale fisheries use drift gillnets heavily, with over 90% of the total swordfish catch coming from drift gillnets in some ports.
- Ecuador fisheries are known to specifically target and exploit vulnerable and endangered sharks, with many juveniles and pregnant female sharks being especially vulnerable to surface gillnets.
- Up to 40% of the total catch is underreported in Panama, the biggest exporter of swordfish in this region. Bycatch statistics are unknown because of this underreporting, though it is known that fishermen purposely target sharks as bycatch in order to sell them commercially by setting their gear in known shark territory. Unsurprisingly, the shark fin market is growing here.
- Illegal fishing is also a major contributor to underreporting in Panama, and probably throughout the entire region.
- This region is managed by the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission, and in Chile by the National Fisheries Service as well.
Mexico, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua
- Drifting longlines are the major swordfish and tuna fishery throughout the region, and gillnets are also common, particularly on smaller vessels.
- Small-scale fisheries using drift gillnets off the coast of Baja California, Mexico kill sea turtles by the thousands every year. This specific region has one of the highest worldwide turtle bycatch rates.
- Drift gillnets set to catch the totoaba, a critically endangered species, depleted the vaquita population to the brink of extinction. Only 30 vaquitas remain, and gillnets were banned in their specific territory to allow the species to recover. These regulations do not affect the gillnets used to catch swordfish.
- Many Mexican drift gillnet fisheries are being converted to longline fisheries because of high bycatch rates, but this is not in any way a sustainable solution, as longline bycatch is also negatively impacting ocean animals.
- Illegal small-scale fishing is prevalent in Costa Rica, with over half of the nation’s fishing vessels operating illegally. Many of these small vessels are likely using gillnets.
- Costa Rica has major corruption problems within their fisheries, and the president of the Costa Rican Fisheries Institute purposely ignores studies and claims statistics have been falsified in order to avoid enforcing regulations. He was also involved in an illegal shark finning operation.
- The longline fishery in Nicaragua has seen a noted increase in shark bycatch because of an increase in longline fishing in the region. Nicaragua also suffers from unreported bycatch numbers and illegal small-scale fishing operations.
- These countries are also managed by the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission.
Sri Lanka and Indonesia:
- Longline fishing is the major swordfish fishery in the Indian Ocean, and drift gillnets are also common. Gillnet-longline combination fisheries are used in Sri Lanka.
- An estimated 5% of swordfish in the Indian Ocean comes from gillnets, though numbers are likely much higher than reported.
- There are no established observer programs to report catch and bycatch statistics at all in some of the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission’s regulated countries.
- In Indonesia, underreporting of bycatch is widespread. Only 25% of total longline catches are covered, and there is no information from this country on swordfish which is available to the general public.
- There are very few regulations in place to protect endangered and vulnerable bycatch species, and this region has very few general regulations aside from a limit on total vessels allowed to legally catch swordfish.
- There is little specific information available regarding swordfish catch reporting, related bycatch issues, or the sustainability of swordfish fleets here. This lack of readily available information does not reflect well on the fisheries here, and it is likely that they are fishing just as unsustainably as many other countries on this list.
- Underreporting stems from the prevalence of foreign ships fishing for swordfish in Singapore’s waters. Although Singapore is a top exporter of swordfish to America, it does not have its own official swordfish fleet, and much of its swordfish is caught by ships from other nearby countries.
- There is little available public information about the effectiveness of Singapore’s endangered species laws, or how they have directly impacted bycatch or overfishing. It is likely that IUCN Red List species are included in bycatch here as they are elsewhere.
- There are some sustainability efforts underway in the region, though many fishermen remain resistant because of the increase in prices.
- Far Ocean Seafood Products, one of their major seafood suppliers, carries 20% sustainable products. Their seafood suppliers are internally regulated by the Seafood Industries Association Singapore.
- Longlines are the major commercial swordfish fishery here, but some hand-operated pole lines, a sustainable fishing gear, are also in use.
- Bycatch reporting is insufficient, and the effect of Vietnam’s longlines on other species is unknown due to a very limited observer program. Based on the underreporting in other countries, and on the lack of strict bycatch regulations, we can probably assume that longline fisheries here are equally damaging.
- In 2014, Spain halted exports on swordfish from Vietnam because of concerns with catch underreporting, and because of evidence of severe overfishing in the region. It is likely that swordfish imported to America from Vietnam is also coming from underreporting exporting fisheries.
- This country’s fishery is managed by the Vietnam Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development.
- Drifting longlines are the major swordfish fishery in Brazil, and there is a high rate of small-scale fisheries, making up an estimated 60% of the country’s fisheries.
- High numbers of seabirds caught in longlines have been reported in the Brazil, as in most places where longlines are used.
- There have been some laws adopted to regulate reporting and illegal fishing, but the effectiveness on swordfish fisheries and bycatch is not currently known.
- There are general signs of overfishing in the Brazilian region, but this is not specific to swordfish. Illegal and unregulated fishing practices have led to this overfishing, and it is likely that swordfish fisheries are operating in the same way.
- This region is managed by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas.