Key findings:

  • Further decline in swordfish catch in the central Mediterranean last year
  • Fishermen off northern coast gave up on swordfish last summer
  • Bleak outlook contributing to decline in number of full-time fishermen
  • Many fishermen now target large spawning females in deep water
  • More than one in four swordfishes caught are smaller than the minimum size permitted
  • Warmer sea due to global warming possibly affecting swordfish distribution and breeding
  • Senior scientist says that less juveniles in catches this year could be due to reduced breeding or maturity rate
  • Undersized swordfishes widespread in fish markets despite rules banning such catches or sales
  • Senior scientist says that data on catches is partial and possibly manipulated
  • EU Commission reluctant to act more strongly on closed season despite EU nations holding more than two-thirds of catch quota
  • EU and Maltese authorities instead say more scientific studies needed before further conservation measures
  • The NGO WWF calls situation of juveniles ‘alarming’ and urges new measures on closed season to ensure species' recovery

John Caruana* has been fishing for swordfish every spring and summer for many years, operating from a small boat of around five metres long to set a surface, floating longline with around 120 hooks approximately 10km off Malta’s northern coast. Last spring, Caruana caught only two swordfishes over a six-week period, one of his worst seasons ever. Then he gave up.

Other small-scale fishermen on the northern coast of Malta also faced a similar fate.

Caruana then switched to near-coast fishing with trammel net. Trammel net fishing consists of three nets hung vertically from the surface down the water column; fishes get entangled in the nets at night.   

Fishes caught in a trammel net

I detected an air of resignation I had not seen before when I went to see Caruana, whom I have known for many years. He told me that his family have only remained fishermen because they hawk their own catch directly or sell to restaurants, and that it would no longer be feasible if they had to rely solely on wholesale prices.

Throughout Malta, most full-time fishermen have resigned to the realization that if they last until retirement, it would be the end of the line for the family business – fishery business has always passed down the generations in Malta. The decline in the traditional fishery can be seen in the diminishing number of full-time, professional fishermen, whose number has fallen by almost half over the past twenty years and now number around four dozen.    

Decline of iconic swordfish

Swordfish has long been an iconic Mediterranean fish traditionally more popular than bluefin tuna among Maltese fishermen, but its population has declined, especially where Maltese fishermen have been traditionally fishing for generations. The main fishing ground for the larger Maltese longline fishers – those who have boats longer than 12 metres and go on fishing trips lasting between a day and several days – is to the south of Malta, in the patch of sea between Malta and Libya, usually closer to Libya than Malta.

Swordfishes used to be more commonly caught by artisanal fishermen in the past (this picture was taken 15 years ago)

One veteran longline fisher who preferred to remain anonymous who fishes in the area told me that during three trips last spring his catch amounted to 800kg of swordfish. The price fetched €11 per kilo at the beginning of the season, before dropping to €6 by around the end of June.

“Catches have been getting worse with every passing year,” Tony Attard* said.

One boat in the area had a fluke in early summer, catching swordfish amounting to around 700kg in one trip. “Everyone talked about it,” he said, “but it was a one-off.”

The catch was made by a boat that belongs to Malta’s largest fisher, whom fishermen say has around  12 boats.

Fishermen offloading a good swordfish catch in Marsaxlokk

“Their catches tend to be better,” Attard said, “and that may be because they venture closer to Libyan waters than the rest of us. The crew is Egyptian, and they of course talk Arabic. Most of us keep a wide distance from Libya’s waters. The Libyan authorities or those in charge can act arbitrarily. There is much lawlessness.”  

“But the situation in Libya is a blessing in a way,” he added. “If Libyan seas had to be fished as intensively as elsewhere in the Mediterranean, I can tell you there would be no swordfishes left in the central Mediterranean.”

A fisherman arranging swordfish hooks before a fishing trip

Mesopelagic lines target big spawners

“The only fishers who are having better catches are those who deploy hooks in the deep, at 100 metres deep or more,” Attard said. “But I have no heart to do the same and catch adult females about to spawn.”

Attard said that in 2023 most of Malta’s allocated swordfish quota was caught by around four Maltese longliners who went to fish in the northwest Mediterranean. These fishermen employ the hooks deployed at depth, called mesopelagic longlines.

Some other Maltese longliners also employ mesopelagic lines, some in the south of Malta and others to the east of Malta, where there is an underwater escarpment thousands of metres deep.

“Catches were good when they first started deploying hooks in the deep,” the fisherman said. “Two tons or more of swordfish on every trip. They were catching adult females of 150kg or more. But the catch dwindled within years – now they catch less in quantity, and smaller fishes too. Only those who fish in the northwest of the Mediterranean still get good catches, and I think that is because that part of the Mediterranean is replenished by large swordfish that come in from the Atlantic Ocean.”  

A fishermen putting together a longline for swordfish fishing

Various studies have shown that although swordfish do not migrate – there are separate, distinct populations in the Atlantic Sea (further subcategorized into north and south) and in the Mediterranean Sea – there is some dispersal and intermingling between the populations. 

Only the swordfish population in the Mediterranean has been decimated, and in 2016, after the Standing Committee Research and Statistics (SCRS) of ICCAT confirmed that Mediterranean swordfish had been overfished over the previous 30 years, ICCAT rolled out a fifteen-year recovery plan, which it called a Multi-annual Recovery Plan for the Mediterranean Swordfish (more on this below). ICCAT is the acronym for International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna, an intergovernmental body that oversees fishery controls over Atlantic tuna, swordfish, and albacore.  

Scientific studies draw similar conclusions to what Attard, the Maltese longline fisherman, said about mesopelagic fishing. Mesopelagic lines differ from surface longlines in terms of the hooks being deployed into the depths – a study in Italy’s Ligurian Sea, where all 40 swordfish fishers switched to using mesopelagic lines in 2010, reported that the hooks are deployed in depths ranging from 100 to 600 metres. It is a method of fishing originally introduced in Spain around 20 years ago.  

The multi-year study in the Ligurian Sea, conducted by the University of Genoa, found that a greater proportion of females than males are being caught with mesopelagic lines. Many of these are described as ‘large spawners’. Yet the large individuals and large quantities of swordfishes initially caught gave way to lesser catches of smaller fish within a few years.  

Stingrays are regularly caught in surface longlines as a bycatch, and do not survive afterwards

One good thing about mesopelagic lines is that virtually no juvenile swordfishes are caught – and neither are bycatches of loggerhead turtles and juvenile tuna and stingrays. However, the large spawners caught in these lines raises questions about current sustainability strategies. In the 2015 study by the University of Genoa, the author Fulvio Garibaldi put it like this: “The dilemma that always divides fisheries biologists is whether it is better to protect juveniles or spawners.”

Recruitment low despite Italian bonanza

Swordfish steak grilled in herbs

Swordfish is a popular fish in Italy. The country accounts for half the annual quota set by ICCAT for Mediterranean swordfish, and more than two-thirds of the EU’s quota. Of the global Mediterranean quota of 9,000 tons annually set by ICCAT as part of the recovery plan, seven of the EU’s Mediterranean countries hold 6,363 tons (these are Croatia, Cyprus, France, Greece, Italy, Malta and Spain, which have a combined fleet of longliners that target swordfish amounting to 1622 vessels, almost all of them smaller than 24 metres). The rest are assigned to Morooco (924 tons), Tunisia (865 tons), Algeria (472 tons), and Turkey (378 tons).

According to WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature), Italy not only has the largest quota, it also imports swordfish from Tunisia and east Africa. Malta is another source – investigations and inquiries by this website suggest that the larger bulk of Malta’s catch is exported to Italy.

Various sources have said that Italian longliners had good catches of swordfish last year, in 2023, and this has led to chatter in fishery circles about whether the Mediterranean swordfish population might have begun to recover.

It has only been a decade since ICCAT began incrementally tightening restrictions around swordfish fishing. A ban on catching swordfish smaller than 90 centimetres from lower jaw to tail fork was introduced in 2014, and this was extended to 100 centimetres in 2017 when ICCAT formally launched its Multi-Annual Recovery Plan for Mediterranean Swordfish that is set to run until 2031.  Aside from banning the catch of fishes shorter than 100 centimetres from lower jaw to fork of tail, the plan gradually reduced the catch quota to 9,000 tons – this is less than half the annual catch recorded in the mid-eighties when swordfish catches in the Mediterranean peaked. The plan additionally introduced a closed season of three months a year, and put restrictions on fishing gear (hooks not smaller than 7cm, and surface longlines not having more than 2,500 hooks and not being longer than 55 kilometres). It also introduced an observer system similar to what has been done with the tuna fishery – countries have been obliged to have scientific observers present on one in twenty longline vessels larger than 15 metres in length. The observers’ task is to record the catch.

Fishermen prepare the longline aboard a typical longliner vessel in the Mediterranean

Yet six years after the introduction of the recovery plan, the status of the recovery of Mediterranean swordfish remains uncertain. In the latest stock assessment by ICCAT in 2020, what emerged most clearly is that the population remained below the level that could deliver MSY (Maximum Sustainable Yield, the point of equilibrium  at which fishing would not result in the decline of a species). This means that swordfish remains overfished, although the question of whether ‘overfishing’ was still occurring hovered in the grey area between likeliness and unlikeliness. In a presentation at the subsequent ICCAT plenary meeting, the chair of SCRS (Standing Committee Research and Statistics, ICCAT’s scientific body) said that swordfish “was most likely overfished and current mortality was just below Fmsy levels” – this means that catches would have to remain at current levels, if not drop further, to give a chance over time for the population to recover to a level that would support maximum sustainable yield.

Yet SCRS's substantial concerns are reflected in the precautionary approach it adopted over recommendations to ICCAT. In technical jargon, the SCRS said it would consider the interim limit reference (LRP) of 0.4*BMSY.  Alessandro Buzzi, the Rome-based regional manager on Mediterranean fisheries for WWF, told this website in response to questions that “0.4 can be considered precautionary for LRP, as usually for tuna species it is 0.2.” This suggests that SCRS is more concerned about swordfish than it has been for bluefin tuna, which had also been subject to a recovery plan. 

In the last stock assessment, SCRS acknowledged the need for more comprehensive data, particularly on catches and discards of juvenile swordfishes.

Questions surrounding catches of juveniles, and the completeness or reliability of data, were also raised by Antonio Di Natale, a veteran Italian marine biologist who used to work for ICCAT and now works for the Fondazione Acquario di Genova Onlus, a foundation set up to raise awareness about sustainable use of marine resources.

“Last year there were less swordfish juveniles in the catches,” Di Natale said in response to this website’s questions, “and this may be due to two different reasons: reduced recruitment [fish added to the population either through birth and maturity] that could be related to climate change, or else juveniles stayed in deep waters away from coastal areas, where the trophic chain was more suitable for them. For adults, 2023 was a good year in various parts of the Mediterranean, including Italy, but this is just an impression we have (based on detailed info reported by fishers).”

A mid-sized swordfish on the deck of an artisanal fisherman's boat

Asked what he meant by describing the good year as ‘an impression we have,’ Di Natale said that “the quality of data [on swordfish status] is not good and highly unreliable”, and the handicap is an overreliance on observers’ reports for data.

“Observers are in most cases not providing complete data sets for the fishery, it seems that the data are very partial,” Di Natale said. “This is something we have raised in various ICCAT meetings over the past 4 years. If the data are somehow manipulated or reported partially, this would be very serious because we are not getting accurate data on catches of swordfish and by-catch species. This is particularly the case when it comes to catches of undersized fish.”

But what accounts for last year’s discrepancy – good catches around Italy, scarcity in the central Mediterranean?   

“The distribution of pelagic fish can partly change from one year to another,” Di Natale said. “Last year and this year the water was really hot in certain parts of the Mediterranean, and this could have affected the distribution of swordfish. It is also possible that in some years you have some changes that can affect the vertical distribution of the fish [swordfish]; when the sea surface temperature (SST) is too hot for the species, the individuals tend to swim in deeper waters.”

The water temperature in the central Mediterranean was a couple of degrees hotter than normal last Summer, and it has remained slightly warmer until last month. Yet the artisanal fishermen along Malta’s northern coast – among them John Caruana , mentioned at the beginning of this article – saw their situation improve by autumn.

Catches of juveniles are rife despite rules

Reduction in catches of juveniles remains the point of greatest concern and contention. It was one of the main themes in ICCAT’s recovery plan, which acknowledged in the declarotary principles of the preamble the “high proportion of juveniles swordfish in the catches and its negative impact on the spawning biomass per recruit levels.”

Undersized swordfishes (Picture credit: WWF)

A study by ICCAT covering the period 2008 to 2018, and published in 2020, found that the proportion of discards of undersized swordfish climbed to 24 percent when ICCAT imposed a ban on catches of swordfishes shorter than 100 centimetres from lower jaw to tail fork. The percentage of undersized swordfishes caught was even larger than that percentage because many fishermen keep such undersized swordfishes.

These small, IUU catches (IUU stands for illegal, unreported and unregulated) swordfish are common in some Mediterranean fish markets.  These include fish markets in Kelibia, Tunisia, as well as fish markets in Sicily’s Catania and Palermo, reported by WWF.

In Sicily, these undersized swordfish are called padino, and they sell at a lower price than adult swordfish. Adult swordfish fetches €25-30 per kilo, while juveniles go for €5-10 if you buy the whole fish, something that allows fish mongers to get rid of the small, IUU-swordfish quicker.

In Malta, undersize swordfish is relatively common in fish markets and among hawkers. A longline fisherman investigated for this article, whose name is being withheld, spent much of last summer catching undersized swordfish regularly and landing it at a distance of around 100 metres from where fisheries inspectors are stationed.

Some hawkers typically cut off the head and tail, and split the body in half, to make it harder to visually estimate the length of the juvenile swordfish.

Asked about this, a spokesperson for the Maltese Parliamentary Secretary for Fisheries and Aquaculture – the junior minister responsible for fishing – admitted that “certain elements within the [swordfish and tuna] fishery” may not be observing “laws with regards to minimum sizes, official pre-notifications and other control tools which should be followed.”

A fishmonger cuts swordfish steaks

Then the official spokesperson mentioned the upcoming implementation of what he referred to as “the digital transformation in the Fisheries Sector” that will make “controls tighter, resulting in the chance to identify irregular fish on the market much easier.” He added that implementation of this new system would take two years, and that the department would act if it received any reports of hawkers or fish mongers selling undersized fish.

I could not verify whether what the unspecified “digital transformation” would make any difference. However, according to multiple sources, inspections of boats arriving in port that do not declare any catch has dwindled to virtual nought in the past few years. Neither does the department carry out any no proactive inspections of fish markets to take action against, or prevent, the sale of undersized swordfish.  

The sale of juvenile swordfish is also widespread elsewhere around the Mediterranean according to Alessandro Buzzi, the regional manager on Mediterranean fisheries for WWF. Buzzi said: “Juvenile swordfish are found for sale illegally on the harbour-side, in fish markets, and on street corners around the Mediterranean all year round, and more so after September. This widespread illegal swordfish trade threatens the recovery of a fish population that was overfished for almost 30 years. Too often, consumers are unwittingly complicit in this illegal trade that needs to be halted to protect the recovery of such an iconic species.”

Juvenile, undersized swordfish at a fish market (Picture credit: WWF)

Buzzi added that the WWF is calling upon countries to make an effort to enforce the regulations on the ban of undersized swordfish catches.

Close fishing in autumn

WWF has also been lobbying ICCAT – so far unsuccessfully – to make a closure of the season in October and November throughout the Mediterranean a mandatory measure to reduce the high rate of juvenile, undersized catches. At present, in ICCAT’s recovery plan, countries have an option of closing the season in October or November, on top of that a third month  in February or March, or else close the season for the first three months of the year, from January to March. Buzzi says all countries opt to close the season from January to March, which is when catches are lowest anyway in the winter months.

“We are talking of swordfishes that weigh just 2-3 kilograms,” said Buzzi. “The main problem is that fishermen are still allowed to catch swordfish in October and November, which is when most juvenile swordfish are caught.”

Buzzi said that even fishermen keen to avoid juveniles would still end up catching juveniles as a bycatch in those months – and then the fishermen would either discard the juveniles, when they would already be dead, or else take them to port as illegal catch.

“The recovery plan for swordfish was a good start,” Buzzi said. “But now it is imperative that the fishing plan is modified in order to ban fishing in October and November.”

Tony Attard*, the Maltese longline fisher, talked about this dilemma in his comments to this website. He said he feels ethically compelled to bring to market any undersized swordfish he catches unintentionally rather than cut the fish loose when it is already dead.   

He also added that, as far as fishing in Malta is concerned, the issue of juvenile swordfish being a part of the catch is a recent phenomenon. “In the past,” he said, “fishing seasons were well defined. In late spring and early summer we had fishing for tuna and swordfish with longlines. Then everyone would switch to fishing for dorado by middle of August. Now that cyclical seasonality has become blurred, everything has become complicated and fishing has become intensive. The swordfish is no longer given a chance – it is targeted at any time that the season is open, from April to December.”

Longline fishing lines can be many miles long

I sent questions to the EU Commission and the Maltese authorities to ask if they supported closing the season in October and November, and then for another month – rather than January to March closure as at present – in order to curb the catching of juvenile swordfish.

The spokesperson for Maltese junior fisheries minister said that “Malta is always ready to discuss any potential management measures, as supported by reliable scientific advice, for the protection of stocks. It is of utmost importance that any management measures are backed by scientific advice and take into consideration any socio-economic impacts.”

A spokesperson for the EU Commission said that “the proportion of juvenile swordfish caught in Mediterranean swordfish fisheries is an important element that should be taken into account in the light of the multi-annual recovery plan for Mediterranean swordfish. Any decision taken by the European Union amending the closure of the fishing season or any other conservation measures would always be based on the best available science. Therefore, the EU supports further scientific work based on sound data (catches, fleet, scientific data, catch by unit of effort, size classes, age-length, discards…) that can underpin the negotiations and policy decisions to be taken in the ICCAT.”

Juvenile, undersized swordfish sold by a fish hawker (Picture credit: WWF)

As already pointed out, the available scientific data – a study for ICCAT published in 2020 – has shown that the discards of juvenile fishes accounted for 24 percent of the entire catch after 2017, which is when ICCAT increased the minimum size of swordfish that can be caught to 100 centimetres in length from lower jaw to tail’s fork.   

It is a figure that Buzzi characterizes as “an alarmingly high percentage that cannot be ignored.”

He also pointed out that a scientific study commissioned by WWF in 2021 had found that “by closing the fishery in October and November, plus an additional month, juvenile mortality should drop down by 40 percent of the current level.”

He said: “Any initial economic loss that this different season closure would cause for fishers would be greatly outweighed by the ecological and economic benefits that a healthy stock would provide in the long term.”

*John Caruana and Tony Attard are fictitious names of fishermen who only agreed to talk on condition of anonymity.

This story was produced with support from Internews' Earth Journalism Network.


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