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East's Top Chefs Act to Save the Swordfish

As the North Atlantic species nears commercial extinction, 25 pricey eateries won't serve it for at least a year. They hope others will join. Situation in Pacific not nearly as grim.

January 19, 1998|JAMES GERSTENZANG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Consider it a candidate for the Endangered Dishes List.

Swordfish has long been popular on the menus of high-end restaurants. But now, in an unusual self-imposed moratorium, chefs at about 25 top restaurants along the East Coast and into Texas are about to voluntarily clear it from their grills, pans and plates.

The reason: Fear among those in the culinary community, conservationists and marine biologists that if overfishing of North Atlantic swordfish does not stop, the tasty species will become commercially extinct--that is, too rare to be worth hunting for profit.

According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, a U.S. Commerce Department agency, the North Atlantic swordfish population has fallen by 68% since 1960. And 88% of the North Atlantic swordfish caught by U.S. fishing boats in 1995 were too young to have reproduced.

Under the chefs' plan, to be announced Tuesday at a luncheon (Parmesan flan, two pastas, a mushroom risotto--no fish) on Manhattan's fashionable East Side, menus will be devoid of swordfish for a year--or until a satisfactory recovery plan is developed.

And they hope to recruit other chefs to their cause.

Swordfish populations in the Pacific are in better shape--and the popular fish will no doubt continue to grace menus in California. But conditions in the Atlantic are dire.

Before 1963, the average weight of captured North Atlantic swordfish--including those from the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico--was 266 pounds, according to the Fisheries Service. By 1970, it had fallen to 133 pounds; by the end of 1995, it was only 90 pounds.

Left alone, swordfish can grow to 1,200 pounds and live more than 25 years.

The popularity of swordfish has coincided with several developments: Where once they were caught by single-shot harpoons, technological advances now allow single boats to catch huge numbers of fish on hooks that dangle from lines up to 40 miles long.

As the lines are hauled in, the fish that make the minimum, 44-pound weight end up on the table as steaks; smaller fish are cut loose and, in most cases, die quickly in the ocean.

"I can find other fish to eat without feeling like I'm eating teenagers," said Nora Pouillon, owner of two of the Washington restaurants participating in the voluntary swordfish ban, Nora and Asia Nora.

At the same time technology has made more swordfish available, medical research is touting the health benefits of eating fish and economic advances have made swordfish more affordable.

"Swordfish is considered a pretty top-of-the-line product, so as incomes rise in the United States, people switch from fish sticks to swordfish steaks," said Rebecca Lent, chief of the National Marine Fisheries Service's highly migratory species management division.

For ecologically sound substitutes, environmentalists suggest, try striped bass or farm-raised shrimp.

The chefs also hope to put pressure on the Fisheries Service. It has been ordered by Congress to devise a program to bring the species' population up to a sustainable level within 10 years.

The United States is leading an international campaign, for which it claims some success, to restrict the amount of fish caught each year and to monitor their size.

But, as government officials and representatives of American fishing fleets note, the United States has little control over foreign boats working in international waters. For that reason, a U.S. boycott of swordfish could end up lowering the price of the fish and hurting American fishing crews while leaving the fishing grounds wide open to foreign fleets selling overseas.

Although the Pacific swordfish is not endangered, U.S. officials note that swordfish stocks worldwide are "seriously depleted," and marine biologists and conservationists worry that failure to heed the lesson of the Atlantic could visit the same fate on the western species.

At the moment, Pacific fishing operations use fewer and generally smaller boats.

"It's very heavily regulated in comparison to long-line fisheries in the Atlantic," said Paul Dalzell, a marine biologist with the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council, a federal agency that regulates fishing in U.S. zones of the mid-Pacific.

Pacific swordfish are not in significant decline. In 1988, the average weight of swordfish caught was 119 pounds; in 1992, it was 178 pounds; and in 1996, 157 pounds.

Chefs like swordfish for its versatility.

Mark Gold, sous chef at the Water Grill in downtown Los Angeles, serves it with a truffle nage, a white wine sauce with celery, leeks and truffles.

Eric Chaitin, executive chef in Chicago's Zodiac Room at the Michigan Avenue Neiman Marcus, suggests a swordfish club sandwich.

"People certainly love it," he said. "When it's on the menu, it sells."

But to keep it on the menu for the long run, Pouillon and the other chefs argue, it must come off the menu now.

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