Times of Malta 13 May 2010

Din l-Art Ħelwa is pleased to hear that the EU is proposing new measures to protect diminishing stocks of swordfish. According to regulations issued by ICCAT (2007/01) it is prohibited to fish for swordfish between October 1 and November 30. This will allow stocks to build up by allowing breeding and the swordfish will be able to grow to breeding age.

Year after year it is becoming more obvious that our fish stock is decreasing rapidly. Both amateur and professional fishermen are noting that they have to spend more time and effort to catch the same amounts of fish as in previous years. Of greater concern is the fact that fishermen are using nets with smaller mesh sizes and hooks of a smaller size. This is leading to the catching of immature fish, which results in an exponential decrease of fish stock.

A visit to open fish markets reveals that a large number of baby swordfish are being caught. The hook size of the long-lines to catch swordfish should be controlled as fishermen are using small hooks and so catch immature fish.

Legislative resolutions concerning management measures for the sustainable exploitation of fishery resources in the Mediterranean Sea, approved by the European Parliament in previous decisions, state that the use for fishing and the keeping on board of any long-lines with hooks of a total length below 10 centimetres and not wider than 4.5 centimetres shall be prohibited for any fishing vessel using long-lines.

Landing or having on board a quantity of swordfish (xiphias gladius) that constitutes more than 20 per cent of the catch in live weight after sorting is also prohibited.

The total length of hooks is measured as the maximum overall length of the shank from the tip of the hook, which serves for fastening the line and is usually shaped as an eye, to the apex of the bend. The width of hooks is measured as the greatest horizontal distance from the external part of the shank to the external part of the barb.

No swordfish (xiphias gladius) fished in the Mediterranean Sea should be caught smaller than 110 centimetres (lower mandible) or 16 kilos round weight (weight of the whole fish before processing or removal of any part) or 14 kilos gilled and gutted weight (weight after the gills and guts have been removed).

However, this apparently is having very little effect on the quantity of small swordfish being caught. We are still witnessing the capture of a large amount of baby swordfish and this is the beginning of the end of a species. A significant number of swordfish are also caught by illegal driftnet fisheries by other countries fishing in the Mediterranean. These are called “walls of death” as driftnets are also indiscriminate, catching any animal that crosses their path.

If a swordfish is caught by an amateur fisherman it has to be released immediately if alive. Sometimes, immature swordfish are caught accidentally and die before they can be released. Unfortunately, nothing can be done in these circumstances but, since the number of captured immature fish is increasing, the government has to consider extending the closed season. A reduction in the capture of North Atlantic swordfish has worked well to increase the numbers of this fish and some sacrifice on the part of all could result in a better swordfish stock also in our islands.

The government’s responsibility is to ensure that the law is adhered to and should prevent immature swordfish from being caught and sold. We hear much being said about bluefin tuna and measures that are being undertaken to protect its extinction but swordfish will be facing the same fate in the near future if actions to protect it are not taken immediately.

Dr Farrugia Randon is a council member of Din l-Art Ħelwa.