Give the poor swordfish a break

January 29, 1998|By Nora Pouillon

CHEFS are known by the food they put on the table.

But this year, many of my colleagues are joining me in a campaign to take something off the table. We're not going to serve any North Atlantic swordfish in our restaurants this year.

Endangered fish

The swordfish is a magnificent creature. Using its enormous eyes and swordlike bill to hunt the ocean depths, it can grow to 1,200 pounds and live for more than 25 years. Unfortunately, these animals are now in serious trouble as the result of overfishing.

The Atlantic coast off the United States supported a productive, sustainable swordfish fishery for nearly a century, until the 1960s. Fishing was almost exclusively by harpoon, which may seem barbaric but is actually a highly selective method that limits the catch and targets larger fish that have had a chance to reproduce.

Unfortunately, spurred by growing consumer demand, a new fishing technique called ''long-lining'' emerged. Commercial ships called longliners began deploying monofilament lines stretching dozens of miles, to which hundreds of baited hooks were attached.

Designed to float at exactly the depth where swordfish congregate to feed, the longlines indiscriminately strip life from the ocean, hooking enormous numbers of undersize swordfish before they reach breeding age (as well as sea turtles, sharks and other ocean wildlife).

While fishing vessels are required to discard undersize catch, most of the young swordfish die on the hook.

This highly efficient but indiscriminate method has worked all too well. Today, the North Atlantic swordfish population has plummeted to the crisis point.

According to the U.S. government's marine fisheries service, nearly two-thirds of the current catch is made up of very small fish that have had no chance to spawn. In fact, the average North Atlantic swordfish caught today weighs just 90 pounds, down from more than 250 pounds in the 1960s. The legal minimum weight is just 44 pounds -- babies, not adults.

This is the portrait of a natural resource on its way to disaster. But it doesn't have to be this way. We need to take a timeout now and press the government to develop an effective recovery plan for the North Atlantic swordfish -- before it's too late.

That's why more than two dozen leading East Coast chefs have agreed to join me as initial supporters of a voluntary program called ''Give Swordfish a Break,'' sponsored by SeaWeb, a project of the Pew Charitable Trusts, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, a prominent national environmental organization.

We've agreed to take North Atlantic swordfish off our menus during 1998, the International Year of the Ocean, until adequate conservation measures are adopted.

Throughout the year, we will attempt to enlist more of our colleagues in this educational effort, along with groceries, retail markets and consumers.

Taking a break

Our goal is not to stop serving North Atlantic swordfish forever. It's simply to take a break while there is still time to develop a plan for replenishing the population, so that our children and grandchildren may enjoy swordfish. This is a realistic, not a radical, approach.

I stopped serving swordfish in my restaurants when I first noticed that the fish being offered for sale were getting smaller. A slice from the center cut of a North Atlantic swordfish used to yield two steak portions. Today, that same cut provides only one steak portion because we are buying, preparing and eating baby fish.

We can't go on this way. Let's give the North Atlantic swordfish a break this year and send a clear message to the federal government at the same time: Restore this magnificent fish.

Nora Pouillon owns Nora and Asia Nora restaurants in Washington.

Pub Date: 1/29/98

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