Skip main navigation

Harpoon-caught Swordfish: A Deep Dive with the Marine Stewardship Council

July is peak grilling season, a time when seafood-lovers’ thoughts naturally turn to swordfish. This firm and meaty fish won’t fall apart on the grill, and its slightly sweet taste pairs perfectly with smoky flavors from the flames. Swordfish are migratory creatures, and July usually finds schools of swordfish off the coast of Nova Scotia. In the 1990s, however, the population of North Atlantic swordfish was dwindling—along with a whole way of life for local fishing families.

To get the story of how North Atlantic swordfish made a comeback, we sat down with Jon Corsiglia, U.S. Media Manager for the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). The MSC works to promote sustainable fishing and safeguard seafood supplies for future generations. In 2010, Nova Scotia’s harpoon fleet became the first swordfish fishery to be certified sustainable by the MSC.

Q: For those of us who don’t know much about fishing, I think that the idea of harpoon-caught fish seems so fantastic—almost like something out of a movie. Can you explain how it works?

A: It literally is a fisherman with a harpoon up on the bow of the boat, quite a bit above the surface of the water, which gives them a broad view. And the Captain manoeuvers the boat close enough so the harpooner can see a swordfish getting warm from the sun on the surface. A good harpooner can identify the swordfish that he or she wants to target. And, with very good aim, they can harpoon that exact one.

Q: What’s the connection between harpoon fishing and sustainability?

A: It’s a very selective way of fishing. There’s no by-catch because the harpooner can see the fish before he strikes. In other words, they don’t bring aboard or harm or catch any fish that they don’t intend to catch, whether that’s another fish species or even a swordfish that’s too small. They can take exactly the fish that they want.

Q: How does a fishery like the Nova Scotia harpoon fishery become MSC certified?

A: The fishermen who are active in the fishery come to the MSC and indicate that they would like be assessed against the MSC standard. Next, a third-party assessment group assembles a team of scientific experts who are knowledgeable about that particular species and ecosystem. This team gathers and analyzes the available scientific literature and fishery management rules to examine the fishery to see whether it meets the MSC standard.

The MSC fishery standard has three basic principles: the health of the fish stock, impacts on the ecosystem and the management of the fishery. That last principle usually involves the government agency that sets the quotas and enforces fishery regulations. It’s not MSC that manages the fishery, but the MSC standard relies on good fisheries management being in place.

And then, within those three principles, there are 28 performance indicators that must be met. The third-party evaluation team gets really detailed in terms of what the fisheries are doing or not doing in order to meet those criteria. They produce a report, which is peer reviewed and published for public comment and then revised. Once this process is complete, only then can the seafood from the fishery be sold with the MSC ecolabel.

Q: What’s your favorite part about this process?

A: How the fishermen go about meeting the MSC sustainability standard is up to them. In the case of the harpoon-caught swordfish fishery, their choice to use a method like harpoons—to me that’s really unique. It doesn’t have to be high tech. The harpoon is definitely a very selective tool, not only for fishing, but also for sustainability. These fishermen have made the choice themselves, on their own terms, and we think that’s great. It’s also great that these techniques can be passed down—and not just the technique of harpooning, but the ability to be successful and support a business, support a family. And the fact that the delicious swordfish will continue to show up on plates and barbecues for generations—we think that’s a win-win.

Explore More