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Time for action to tackle the Mediterranean’s illegal swordfish trade
The illegal trade in juvenile Mediterranean swordfish
The illegal trade in juvenile Mediterranean swordfish

Changing the fishery’s annual closure would reduce illegal catches by 40%

One morning in October last year, a fishing boat approached the port of Kelibia, the main fishing port in north-east Tunisia where the wholesale fish market is held. Dozens of crates of sardines and mackerel were landed. Only one box was left, containing two small swordfish. At the port, in front of the boat, customs checked what was discharged but did not interfere with that box. A small market was set up in front of the boat for direct sales. Fish dealers' trucks arrived, loading up the sardines, but not the swordfish. These would not be sold until the end. The initial price was set at 50 dinars for both fish (15 euros). After some negotiation, they ended up in the hands of two customers for 30 dinars. 

This is just one piece of evidence of the illegal trade in undersized swordfish collected over the last few years between October and November by WWF from El-Haouaria and Kelibia in Tunisia and from Palermo and Catania in Italy. 

As nothing has changed so far, we can expect that this year again from the end of September onwards, in fish markets and on street corners around the Mediterranean, juvenile swordfish will continue to be sold illegally. 

This widespread illegal swordfish trade threatens the recovery of a fish population that recently faced collapse [1]. Too often, consumers are unwittingly complicit in a trade that needs to halt to protect a precious marine resource and, in the medium term, to ensure greater profits for the fishers who depend upon healthy fisheries. 

Each year, fishers in the Mediterranean catch around 9,000 tonnes of swordfish, worth more than €200 million. After decades of overfishing, the Mediterranean swordfish population was in a dire condition. By the middle of the last decade, it was judged to be on the verge of collapse. Fish catches were twice as high as they should have been to sustain the population. 

The road to recovery

A recovery plan, drawn up in 2016 under the auspices of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), was supposed to put the fishery on a gradual path to sustainability. By restricting the total size of the catch, banning fishing for three months, restricting longline fishing, and setting minimum size rules, the plan anticipated a recovery to sustainability by 2031. 

However, as the evidence collected by WWF suggests, minimum landing size (forbidding the sale of fish smaller than 100cm) is still often ignored. The first assessment of swordfish stocks in the Mediterranean by ICCAT estimated that juvenile swordfish represent 24% of the total catch – an alarmingly high percentage. 

Reducing the mortality of juvenile fish would have a big impact on the speed at which the fishery recovers. A scientific assessment commissioned by WWF suggests that a small number of amendments to the ICCAT recovery plan could reduce the juvenile mortality by 40% (especially of newborn fish), enabling the population to recover five years more quickly than would otherwise be the case.


Time to act on juveniles

ICCAT and its fishing nations need to improve the terms of the multiannual recovery plan for Mediterranean swordfish. Among the contracting parties, the European Union is of critical importance, as its member states account for around three-quarters of the annual swordfish catch allowed under the current recovery plan. Introducing just two key changes into the plan could really turn things around for the swordfish stocks in the long run. 

Firstly, the period of the fishing ban needs to change to include the months of October and November. Swordfish spawn in summer. Rapidly growing during the autumn months, they are extremely voracious, and therefore easily caught by longlines targeting adult swordfish or other pelagic species such as tuna. A ban on fishing in those autumn months would allow young swordfish to reach a greater size and maturity before they are allowed to be caught. Secondly, Mediterranean countries need to better enforce the ban to avoid any illegal landing and sale of undersized swordfish. 

The results would be remarkable: not only would the stock recover five years earlier than at current rates, but the income of fishers would also be boosted. Our analysis suggests that the size of the catch would increase 10% within a decade, with an estimated increase in gross revenues by 14%. 

Any initial economic loss that these measures might entail for fishers are greatly outweighed by the ecological and economic benefits that a healthy stock would provide in the long term. The alternative is a much slower recovery and the persistence of illegality that threatens not only our sea, but also the fishers who are following the rules and working to provide consumers with legal, traceable and safe seafood.

[1] According to the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), the swordfish stock spawning biomass (SSB) – the combined weight of all individual fish in the stock that are capable of reproducing – was 88% lower than the levels considered safe to maintain the stock. Fish catches were twice as high as they should have been to sustain the population. 

© Bianco Tangerine/WWF
Changing fishries closure will accelerate the recovery of Mediterranean swordfish