Dave Horton is the owner of McClean’s Seafood in Fairhaven, Massachusetts.


Dave, what is your sense of the state of the fisheries in the North Atlantic?

I’ve been handling swordfish off these distant water long line boats for about 20 years. We haven’t seen a whole lot of drop-off in catches. We have seen some size reduction over a few years back in the late 80’s and early 90’s. My overall view or sense of it is that the fishery is really pretty solid.

We just had a trip come in last week with about 55,000 pounds of swordfish with a 120-pound average weight. It was one of the better trips we’ve had in a couple of years. So the fishery is going back. It’s being very well managed here in the United States. I’ve heard that some scientists in Canada had some pretty good numbers for us for last year so there seems to be a sense of starting to rebound a bit.

The fishery was never in any dire straits as perhaps some people with the conservation groups and other people might have tried to lead people to believe. There was some over-fishing for a few years back in perhaps the 70’s and 80’s but things seem to be very well under control. The fish are being managed very, very well with the National Fishery Service and I believe that we’re going to be here for quite awhile in the swordfish business.

What is a typical year of handling like?

Our primary target is to handle the distant water boats here in the United States, the local fleet. We buy fish from about 20 boats that fish the grand banks and Georges Bank here in the summer and the fall. These boats then go down to the Caribbean and we buy a lot of fish out of Florida and the Gulf and out of the Caribbean area and fly those fish fresh back into Boston and New York.

So we handle these boats year round. We follow them around wherever they go and try to keep the price up for ‘em and put some money back into their pockets. In addition to that we also buy fish from a number of other foreign countries that have developed long-line fleets as well. We buy fish from four or five different countries in South America — Venezuela, Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, and Ecuador. We also buy fish from South Africa; we’re buying fish out of Australia, which is fairly new in the last couple of years; and in New Zealand. We also buy a lot of fish from the Canadians in the summer and fall as well.

It’s flown in, I take it?

The fish from the boats that we handle are loaded at our dock or when they’re in foreign ports. Yes. We load them and we fly them in. It’s all flown in fresh. Most of the fish that we load is flown in within 12 to 24 hours of when it’s unloaded.

What’s your sense of the offshore fleet?

The fleet itself has shrunk a little bit. As far as the boats that are fishing here it’s shrunk substantially. Probably a good 30 or 40 percent over the last 3 to 5 years. There have been a few boats that have gotten out of the fishery but most of the reduced fishing effort here in New England has been due to boats relocating. We’ve had six of our boats relocated to the Pacific, fishing in Hawaii. Another couple of boats we used to unload — one went to Peru, one "The Seneca" now is down in Brazil. And we’ve had a few boats that have gone to other countries. But overall, I’d say in the last 5 years we probably have about 35 to 40 percent fewer distant water long-line boats fishing the North Atlantic than we had four or five years ago.

What is your sense as to why they’re going–why the boats are moving elsewhere?

There are several reasons. One is we’ve been under a management plan which has produced a series of cutbacks in our quota. We had a quota of about 6 million pounds 10 years ago. Today we’re living with a quota, which is four million. So a lot of the boats thought that perhaps they were not going to be able to fish year round–that they’d only be able to fish 3,4 months so they decided to go. Some boats decided to go to the Pacific, where there are no management rules in place yet and there are no quotas and they can fish year round.

Some of the other reasons why some of them left were that three years ago the National Fishery Service instituted a catch limit, so the boats can only come in with 30,000 pounds of fish. The larger, 90, 100-foot boats that are million dollars boats really couldn’t survive with a catch of 30,000 pounds and come in. It’s an expensive proposition to gear it up and go to the grand banks for 30 days and come back, between fuel and gear and grub and the light sticks and the whole ball of wax. So these boats that were used to catching 50 or 60,000 pounds a trip didn’t think they could make it with these smaller reduced limits on their catch and that was part of the reason why some of them left as well.

Some conservation groups say that the north Atlantic swordfish is being over fished. Do you agree?

No I don’t agree. The swordfish boats that are fishing the eastern side of the North Atlantic are under strict management measures. We have quotas. And the quotas have been cut back 10 percent every year for the last several years, so the fishing effort has been reduced and the stock is being managed very well here in the North Atlantic. So I feel very confident that the Canadians and the U.S. fleet are not over fishing. They’re law abiding fishermen, they’re adhering to the laws and regulations, and they’re tying up their boats when the quotas are met.

There’s a tremendous amount of reporting and enforcement that goes to that as well, to make sure that happens. There may be some instance of some over fishing with some of the countries in the western part of the North Atlantic. I know that even though we’re all living under a quota situation and reduced quotas, I don’t believe the enforcement on those fleets may be as adequate as it is here in the United States. Specifically Spain and Portugal and perhaps Japan, who are three of the main large fleets that are catching a lot of swordfish out of the 26 members that are part of ICCAT.

Do the sword fishermen that you work with think that the stocks are healthy?

Overall their assessment of the stock is pretty optimistic. You know, there’s no question, we’ve caught some smaller fish back in the late 80’s, early 90’s. I see things coming back. The fishermen do also. They’ve been bringing great stocks this year. It’s been a phenomenal year. They’re doing much better this year than they did the last couple of years.

People need to realize that this sword fishery is a fishery that occurs in all the oceans over the entire world. These fish not only reproduce and live and are caught and harvested in the North Atlantic but also the South Atlantic, the Pacific, South Pacific, Indian Ocean, and the Mediterranean. I mean they are everywhere and are being harvested everywhere. So the state of the overall fishery of swordfish I’d say is tremendous. The state of the fishery here in the North Atlantic I’d say is good. I don’t think we’re at maximum sustainable yields but we’re getting pretty darn close.

Do you think foreign fishermen are taking the same steps that you are in the United States?

That’s a great question. When you say foreign fishermen, I’m going to relate that to ICAT people here in the North Atlantic, as opposed to worldwide. We live under some very strict guidelines and management rules here in the United States and Canada, and of course all the other ICAT nations as well. I know that we have great enforcement here in the United States and I know in Canada as well. We are doing a pretty good job over here.

The problem that is seen is that even though we have the same laws, rules, regulations and the quotas system that we have in all countries, I don’t believe that some of the foreign countries —perhaps Portugal, like Spain would be a big one to look at — are adhering to these laws as well as we are. And that has the effect of really nullifying the management process. Because if we’re abiding by the law, we’re getting reduced catches. We’re not catching juvenile fish. Now that’s great, but if the rest of the world doesn’t do the same thing it nullifies the effect that we have.

I know. I’ve heard captains come in and they’re out there fishing with the Japanese and the Spanish and so forth and they’ll talk to a Spanish captain and say, "gee, how many fish did you have to discard today because they’re under-sized?" And they’ll say, "what are you talking about, we keep everything." So that’s a pretty good indication that the Spanish fleet, for at least over the last couple of years really hasn’t been abiding by the same ICAT regulations that have been imposed on everybody. That has a lot to do with lack of enforcement on these foreign countries and that really needs to be addressed in a multi-national way by our government at ICAT next time around in Madrid.

What do you think the best management ideas are for maintaining healthy stocks?

I don’t think anyone really has the answer to that yet. What I do firmly believe is there’s a lot more work that needs to be done other than focusing only on fishing efforts and the fishing fleet. We have issues such as the environment, pollution of the oceans, and habitat — which is very, very important. We have spawning areas that need to be looked at and addressed because if we can reduce the fishing effort in spawning areas that creates a tremendous effect on bringing back these fish.

In addition to that there’s the whole food chain we have to take a look at. If you bring in the foreign fishing fleet like we did here back in the 60’s or early 70’s when the Russians came in here and cleaned out the herring and the mackerel, the squid, the butter fish, the whiting. Those are the fish that marlin and swordfish and bluefin and big eye and yellowfin feed on. If you eliminate that bait fish, and then you go out there and say, "gee, where’d the swordfish go, it must have been over-fished," that’s not accurate science. Those fish go somewhere else because they don’t have the food they’re looking for. So there’s a tremendous amount of issues that need to be looked at and I really think that if the environmentalists, the conservationists, and the recreational people were really serious about brining these fish stocks back to MSY, that they would be looking and spending a lot more money on science because what we really need is more science.

What percentage of the product, meaning all of the swordfish that you buy all over the world, is below breeding age?

Science would say that the breeders need to be up to a weight of about 100 — somewhere between 140 pounds before they breed. Some people have come back in recent years saying even less and they found research that shows breeders as low as 40 or 50 pounds.

So again we’ve got a real problem with the science here. Some of your conservation groups tends to get out there, saying it’s got to be 150 pounds before it will breed — that’s not really true. I’m not sure science has a real good handle on it yet. But there’s no question that a lot of fish are harvested before they reach their breeding capabilities and a lot of fish hare already bred when they’re harvested. I don’t know what percentage, it could be 50/50, I really don’t know. But you also have to understand that when it comes to this arguing about catching small fish, these conservationists will say, "gee, you’re catching the small fish, you’re not letting them get up to breeding."

We address that issue by eliminating being able to land under-sized fish below almost 40 pounds, dressed weight. But when you get to that issue and you say gee, we’re going to start bringing in big fish they say, gee, now you’re catching the breeders. So you can’t catch the big fish, you know. So you can’t win with these people that complain about catching small fish because if you say would you stop catching the big fish now you’re catching the spawning fish and you don’t want to do that.

So in reality, whether you’re catching breeders or not, it’s really not that significant because of the fact that these fish grow so fast. They grew to maturity in 3 to 4 years, so these fish rapidly, rapidly grow. They grow to a size of about 150 pounds within 4-5 years and they’re breeding within 3 years. So I believe that the breeding stock is in pretty good shape.