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Sierra Magazine
Food for Thought: Eaters Against Extinction

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 skies.

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 anymore."

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 empty.

Paul Rauber is a senior editor at Sierra.


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