“Well it was a real good life. Harpooning and sword fishing, it was enjoyable, it was. The odds were against you for catching him because first you had to see him and then you had to harpoon him and if he didn’t jump or run you might get the iron in him and then a shark might get him or he might pull the iron out. So it was exciting. It was great to see them…I mean, they’re beautiful fish in the water and it was just a great way of life…” - Louis Larsen, retired Fisherman, MA
It’s hard to believe that in a world where fishing means taking the latest technology out onto the biggest boat and dropping the longest line with the most hooks, only fifty years ago men were tracing steps to the end of long catwalks and stalking huge swordfish, with only a harpoon in hand and steady nerve. There were no lines baited with thousands of pounds of mackerel. This was before sharks and other by-catch animals like tuna died unceremoniously by the hundreds of thousands. It was hunter and prey, the same way it had been since 2000 B.C. It was a primal art and the fishermen were artisans.
Every summer into fall, the swordfish would come close enough to view from Point Judith, Block Island, and other North Atlantic Maritimes. Sometimes as early as May the season would start and go into October and November. Harpooning swordfish was a way of life for these small villages and with the use of the long line not only did the fish go away, but also the communities disappeared.
The swordfish story though has taken a turn since the 1990’s. After fisheries were put on hold and the ‘Give Swordfish a Break’ movement actually made a difference, the fish have since returned. Albeit not to their once prominent numbers, but measures have been put into place to ensure their survival. Still there is no fishery for swordfish that equals the harpoon industry for its stewardship of the species.
There are some harpoon boats still leaving the summer and fall harbors of the North Atlantic, only to return after short trips. They will go out and bring back the highest quality swordfish days and sometimes weeks sooner than any of the giant longliner boats. The fish that they bring back will be enormous fish, at least for these days, 200 lbs and up. They will not hear of any rats or pups, common names for juvenile swords. You see, a sword does not spawn until after it is 5 years old. They need to be well over 100 lbs to make sure this has happened. Harpooners get to select the fish they strike. There’s no ghost hook floating on the bottom blindly. There’s no by-catch getting snagged and hauled above to the boat, only to be cast over the side as the waste of a neglectful enterprise. These fishermen stand only yards away, with their will and some luck, taking swordfish out of the water, one at a time.
In the fall and winter swordfish that is available at the market comes from longliners because harpooners have only a few months to get out there, and even then they are subject to the weather. During these few months it’s always exciting to support these men and the ideas they represent: the idea of leaving fish out there for the next year, the idea of respecting your prey by facing it, looking into its eyes, and meeting it head on. The idea that emptying the ocean is like taking something special away from the world and your children.
It is something great to see harpoon boats going out to meet the swordfish one by one, just as they have for thousands of years. As a result of the product they produce, the care that they take, there is no better swordfish on the market and it makes these months the best time to eat swordfish. The price may be a little more for the bigger harpoon fish than the sometimes smaller line fish, but for these small villages still sending boats out before the sun is up, they will invest a lot more just to get to do it again, one more year. I would too.