Species Spotlight on Swordfish

The swordfish geographically separated into several groups of Atlantic and Pacific and Indian Ocean swordfish, however they are all of the same species. Swordfish (Xiphias gladius) are large apex predators known for their namesake, swordlike bill. They capture prey by slashing this “sword” and are not afraid to use it to spear any threats. Their powerful bodies and extra large eyes all compliment their unique bill, making them an impressive species.

Swordfish swim fast, live short and grow large. They reach maturity within 4 years and large females can weigh over 1000 pounds. They also spawn multiple times per year since they very rarely live more than a decade.

North Atlantic swordfish annually migrate thousands of miles along the eastern seaboard of the United States and Canada. They move from spawning grounds in warm waters to feeding grounds in colder waters. Less is known about the migration of the Pacific variety, but tagging programs by NOAA data suggests they swim past Hawaii as they move East toward the US West Coast.

How Swordfish are Harvested

Historically most swordfish were caught using a harpoon, which could be dangerous in a small boat if the fish was only wounded. There are thousands of accounts of vessels being damaged and fishermen being killed by swordfish.

Commercial fishermen today mainly use pelagic longline gear to harvest North Atlantic fish but rod-and-reel, harpoon, and buoy gear are also used. The use of large circle hooks and certain types of bait are used to reduce catching and injuring sea turtles. Pacific swordfish are also caught by longline and harpoon, but also by drift gillnets, harpoons, and buoy gear along the West Coast.

Swordfish are a important commercial and recreational fish. The average size caught in the fishery is 50 to 200 pounds, but can get to several hundred pounds late in the season. In 2022 commercial landings of swordfish were just under 3 million pounds each for Atlantic and Pacific landings. The recreational landings for each coast topped commercial landing by about one million pounds. Recreational landings of Pacific fish cannot be sold.

According to NOAA’s 2017 stock assessment, North Atlantic stocks are not overfished and not subject to overfishing. West Coast populations are managed in two stocks: NOAA’s 2014 assessment considers the Eastern Pacific Ocean stock not overfished but is currently subject to overfishing. The 2018 NOAA assessment considers the Western and Central North Pacific Ocean stock “not overfished and not subject to overfishing“.

Buying Swordfish

Swordfish can be found year-round in frozen steaks, or previously frozen portions at seafood markets. Fresh sword is abundant during the summer months along the US East Coast, while fresh Pacific swords are available year-round from Hawaii and the West Coast. It is an abundant fish that is increasing popular for its flavor and good oil content. Large steaks can be expensive, but many fish sellers offer smaller off-cuts when in season. These are often seen on summer menus as swordfish kebabs.

Larger fish, much like tuna and shark, can have high concentrations of methyl-mercury and should be eaten in moderation.

Swordfish with watermelon salad

This large powerful fish has a meaty texture and flavorful, but not strong, flavor. The raw flesh can vary from grayish-white to pink to vibrant orange. This is known as “pumpkin” swordfish and is due to the fish gorging on shrimp. The so-called “bloodline” on fresh steaks should be bright red or pink. If it is not vibrant or dried out, it is old. Also, this bloodline turned nearly black after freezing, which is how you can tell if the steaks on display are fresh or previously frozen.

Whether it was fresh or previously frozen, swordfish will cook to a beige color and will also crust nicely with grill marks or a seared in a pan. The flavor and texture gives swordfish some versatility – it is delicious accompanies by a flavorful sauce, or breaded. However it may shine the best prepared simply grilled with olive oil, lemon, salt and pepper.

Historic Recipe: Sautéd Sword-Fish: (1914)

Cut a slice of sword-fish in triangular shaped pieces, dip in egg and soft sifted bread crumbs, and sauté in fat from salt pork. Set around a mound of mashed potato and pipe mashed potato between and above the pieces of fish.

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