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Harpooners seek bigger cut of swordfish market

By Matt Rigney
Globe Correspondent / December 8, 2008
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Walk in to a high-end seafood restaurant in Boston and there is a chance that the menu will feature not just swordfish, but harpooned swordfish. To some discerning diners, that's a plus.

"Harpoon-caught swordfish is the freshest you can get. It's white linen tablecloth stuff," says Saul Newell, one of a handful of Nova Scotia fishermen who know, firsthand, the business of fishing the old-fashioned way.

With fisheries around the world under pressure to find more sustainable and environmentally friendly means of bringing their product to market, a group of about 60 Nova Scotia fishermen, many from the small community of Cape Sable, is practicing the ancient art of harpoon swordfishing.

Harpooning was once the preferred method for harvesting swordfish, from Long Island north to Cape Breton. Cape Sable is one of the last places in the Atlantic it is practiced.

Newell and his colleagues want to do more of it. They are pushing to expand their portion of the Canadian quota for catching swordfish. Now, 10 percent of that quota is reserved for harpoon fishing. The rest goes to the longline fleet, whose multihooked and baited lines extend many miles.

The Canadian Department of Fisheries & Oceans has so far refused to expand the harpooners' quota and their season dates.

Chris Annand, the agency's director of resource management for the Maritime Regions, says that changing the quota structure is complicated. "The total amount of swordfish that Canada can catch is determined by international agreement, so we cannot simply expand the catch. Nor can we simply redistribute the existing quota to give more to the harpooners." That would require taking away from the longline fishery.

And the longliners have no intention of reducing their share of the catch. "It's not going to happen," says an adamant Troy Atkinson, president of the Nova Scotia Swordfishermen's Association, the longline trade group.

Swordfish used to be common within a few dozen miles of the coast of New England and were harvested off the coast of Maine, with harpoon, as recently as the mid-1980s. But overfishing and commercial longlining have decreased the population to numbers that no longer support a New England harpoon fishery.

The earliest known harpoon rig in North America is more than 7,800 years old. The Passamaquody and other tribes native to New England region used bone-tipped harpoons to hunt swordfish as far back as 2000 BC.

Today's surviving harpoon fishermen are at odds with the dominant longline fishing industry. Harpooners maintain their fish is fresher - "on ice within three or four hours and at the dock and in the store within days," says Newell - and that harpooning doesn't harm other sealife the way that longline fishing does with its "bycatch." It is the unintended catch, from turtles to porpoises, that end up on longline hooks.

The longliners' Atkinson disputes the harpooners' freshness allegation, saying that while harpooned fish may have been fresher in the past, recent changes by longliners - such as making shorter trips and upgrading refrigeration - erased the difference. And while he recognizes concerns about the bycatch, he says his group has "taken considerable steps to mitigate" it.

Mike Carroll, a seafood business consultant to the New England Aquarium in Boston, says expanding harpooning as a catch method is feasible, one of many "different fisheries management techniques that can be used to address the needs of the market."

Heather Tausig, the aquarium's director of conservation, noted that the Cape Sable harpooners' impulse to expand the season and the harpoon method is in line with a broader shift she notices in the world of fisheries: "We're seeing lots of interest from our corporate partners to be involved in the conservation of fisheries. They're starting to voluntarily establish source-tracking so they know where their product is coming from, how it was caught, the health of the fishery, etc."

The Cape Sable harpooners would like to develop a niche for their product through major retail outlets that emphasize sustainability and high quality. They are discussing how to do this with the Ecology Action Center, a Halifax-based environmental organization.

Their first hurdle is to qualify for Marine Stewardship Council certification. The environmental standard, signified by a blue "ecolabel," is a recognized sustainable seafood standard that applies only to wild fish. Currently, market price for harpoon-caught swordfish from Cape Sable is no different than swordfish caught by longline. But, "with MSC certification," says Newell, "we'd be able to emphasize the sustainability, freshness, and quality of our swordfish over the stuff the longliners are bringing in."

Says Newell: "If we can get more quota we could fish the full season, more guys would be put to work, and we'd have far less impact on the whole ecosystem compared to what the longliners do."

For now, it remains to be seen whether they can break the impasse. Meanwhile, a few fortunate diners have the option of ordering harpoon-caught swordfish, which sells for the same price as other swordfish, at least for now.

It's a "superior product," says Roger Berkowitz, president and owner of Legal Seafoods. "We do make sure our waitstaff know that the swordfish is harpoon-caught and to communicate this to our customers."

Matt Rigney can be reached at matt@inpursuitofgiants.com.

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