New hook in swordfish tale: chefs boycott to save species

Nearly 40 restaurants are participating in a boycott of swordfish, responding to contentions made by environmental groups and federal marine authorities. The National Fisheries Institute, however, claims that the swordfish population is not in danger and that the boycott will hurt commercial fishermen.
Inspired by two environmental groups, 39 influential restaurants and culinary establishments are protesting the over-harvesting of swordfish by banning the species from their menus for at least a year.

Operating mainly on the East Coast, the chefs and restaurateurs say they plan to enlist their peers nationwide in an effort to raise awareness about the problem while pressuring government and commercial fishermen to devise strategies to save the North Atlantic swordfish.

The restaurants participating in the voluntary ban form an impressive list of celebrated restaurants like Boston’s Hamersley’s Bistro; Coral Gable, Fla.’s Norman’s; New York’s Felidia, Gramercy Tavern and Oceana; Washington’s Nora and Red Sage; and other respected establishments in Philadelphia, Virginia, Baltimore and Texas.

Even the National Press Club in Washington and the L’Ecole French Culinary School in New York are participating.

But the nascent movement already is coming under criticism.

While federal marine authorities concur that the North Atlantic swordfish population has been decimated through decades of overfishing, the National Fisheries Institute — a nonprofit trade association representing companies in all aspects of fishing and seafood processing — said there is no reason to stop eating swordfish and assailed the restaurateurs’ boycott as misguided. The Washington-based group maintains the movement will harm the American commercial fishing fleet, which already has sacrificed 50 percent of its annual fish haul to abide by international harvesting quotas.

Some restaurateurs are skeptical, too. Roger Berkowitz, president and chief executive of the 13-unit Legal Seafoods, said he fears his colleagues are being misled by the hidden agenda of rich sports fishermen who long have sought ways to curtail the harvest of commercial fishermen.

Called to arms by SeaWeb, a 2-year-old environmental education group in Washington, D.C., which notes that 1998 is the International Year of the Ocean, the chefs are rallying behind a ban called “Give Swordfish a Break.” Some operators intend to use bumper stickers and other printed paraphernalia in their restaurants to alert customers.

“We’re not saying don’t eat swordfish forever,” said Vikki Spruill, executive director of SeaWeb. “We are saying give these fish a chance to rebound. We want to send a message to government that current regulations don’t go far enough as evidenced by the data.

“Look at the moratorium government put on rockfish and striped bass a few years ago. Today we have more striped bass than we know what to do with.”

SeaWeb has been joined in the effort by the National Resources Defense Council, a wilderness conservation and natural resources protection group that claims 350,000 members.

Worried by government and industry research documenting rapid swordfish decline, Spruill first contacted Nora Pouillon of Nora’s in Washington to inform her about the group’s findings. Pouillon, an environmentally conscientious chef who stocks her two restaurants with organic products, immediately agreed to help SeaWeb inform other restaurateurs. After identifying other chefs along the East Coast who she thought would support a ban, Pouillon helped SeaWeb write a letter two months ago with a pledge card for operators to send back, affirming that they would not sell swordfish.

According to government studies, East Coast landings of swordfish plummeted 40 percent between 1988 and 1995, from 10.23 million pounds to 6.3 million. Between 1988 and 1996 the wholesale value of swordfish priced on East Coast piers fell 47 percent, from $34 million to $18 million.

Advocates argue that the major problem is that commercial fisherman are primarily harvesting low-weight, juvenile swordfish before they have a chance to mature, breed and multiply. Using baited hooks attached to longlines that stretch for miles, commercial fisherman are indiscriminate in their catches, backers of the ban charge, and are therefore, hastening the end of the species by catching so-called pups.

Experts said that from the end of the last century to the 1960s, fishermen used harpoons to catch swordfish. During that time an individual swordfish brought to land averaged about 300 pounds, with some tipping 1,200 pounds. If left to live out its lifetime, a swordfish could have a lifespan of about 25 years.

Current catches yield juveniles under 90 pounds, backers of the ban charge.

Kevin Meeker, owner of the Philadelphia-based Philadelphia Fish and Co., another restaurant participating in the ban, said in the 16 years he has been a restaurateur visiting the docks to buy seafood, he could see the decline in the size of swordfish over the years.

He said it reached the point where he decided six months ago to take swordfish off the menu since the quality had declined. Meeker said he used to buy swordfish at $2.95 a pound and sold it, depending on the dish, for about $19 a plate.

Immediately recognized by its saber-like snout and huge dorsal fin, swordfish is prized by seafood fans for its sweet, succulent and moist meat. Dubbed the steak of the sea in some places, chefs love swordfish because it lends itself to many cooking techniques, fits in with any ethnic cuisine and has a taste and texture that can withstand varied seasonings.

Nevertheless, the chefs participating in the protest said they are willing to replace it with less-popular and less-profitable species if it means rebuilding the population.

“Swordfish used to be as common as grouper or snapper,” said Norman Van Aken of Norman’s in Coral Gables, Fla., who noted that he has not served swordfish in two years. “I remember working in Key West back in the early ’80s, getting beautifully sized swordfish.

“Now all we see are the pups. It used to be when you got pups, it was a weekend and the guys were in a hurry, or there was a bad storm or some holiday, so fisherman caught what they could and sold it. Now you can see pups almost daily.”

Lidia Bastianich, who is chef-owner of the upscale Italian restaurant Felidia in Manhattan and who hosted a press conference for the movement, said she hopes consumers relate to the effort.

“The issue of food and the depletion of natural resources is something all chefs should be concerned about since we set trends and feed people,” she said. “We are looked upon as a source of information and as a window on the world, and we should be a conduit to our guests since we are in touch with food every day.

“We need to raise people’s awareness, to get them to think about tangible legislation. I don’t consider this a boycott, but a symbolic statement that we are concerned about the future of our food,” she said.

Rick Moonen, executive chef of Manhattan’s Oceana and another participant, said he hoped the movement is not too late. “Generally speaking, something like swordfish is the last thing that is truly wild in nature,” she said. “And if we don’t act now to preserve it, all of our fish are going to be farm raised someday.

“I know this can succeed cause we did it with striped bass, and it’s bigger, stronger and more plentiful than ever. If we don’t make this investment now, we are going to have a bigger problem in the future.”

Berkowitz of Legal Seafoods said he admired his colleagues’ commitment. But he disagreed with their methods and argued that they are being duped by sports fishermen.

“I think there’s a lot of peer pressure being applied in this case,” he said. “Restaurants don’t understand the issue, but it sounds right to them. They carry fish, but they don’t know anything about fishing.”

But Spruill of SeaWeb denied Berkowitz’s accusation that her group is being manipulated by sports fishermen. “I just don’t know where that is coming from,” she said. “We are a funding project of Pew Charitable Trust, and there’s no relation to sports fishermen. We are a public-education project that focuses on the oceans, and we stay out of advocacy.”

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Nelson Beideman, executive director of the Blue Water Fisherman’s Association, which represents the American longline fishing fleet, said he welcomes the interest voiced by chefs and restaurateurs. But he said operators are being misinformed by the environmental groups.

He said overharvesting by other nations is the main problem, and he urged the foodservice industry to join commercial fishermen to establish import measures that would prevent nations that abuse their fishing quotas from exporting their catches into the United States.

The National Fisheries Institute, which opposes the boycott, challenged the advocates of the ban to redirect their efforts to international governing bodies to better enforce fishing quotas.

Niels Moore, a spokesman for the NFI, said all that is going to happen if the boycott is successful is that American fishermen will harvest fewer swordfish while their foreign competitors will catch the balance that they leave behind.

“So you end up with American fishermen, who have already been playing by the rules, being hurt and no tangible benefit to the swordfish stock,” he said. “If you don’t eat one here, it’ll be sold somewhere else.

“What these restaurateurs are doing is penalizing those countries that have complied with international conservation measures. If you want a solution to the problem of overfishing by foreign nations, you should pressure our government to monitor these internationally agreed upon conservation measures.

“I really think these restaurateurs have only heard one side of the story so far.”

Moore identified Spain as one of the leading nations that far exceed their agreed-upon annual swordfish catch.

But Lisa Speers, policy analyst for the Natural Resource Defense Council, said that while she agrees that some countries are ignoring international fishing restrictions, the United States does little to protect breeding grounds in its own waters.

Moreover, she argued, even if every country abided by the harvest limitations governed by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna or ICAT — the body that monitors and enforces international fish harvests — it still would not address the problem of the diminishing swordfish population.

“There is no recovery plan, and that is the problem,” she said. “International enforcement needs to be improved; I agree there,” she said. “But there are things we can do in our own waters, and we have a responsibility and an obligation to promote the recovery of swordfish.

“America would be in a better position to advocate change if it began to protect these species.”

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