Bycatch is a huge problem in commercial fishing operations. The need to make trips out on the water worth the expenses of gas, gear, and work-hours means that often commercial gear is designed to capture as many fish as possible in the shortest amount of time. Unfortunately, a lot of undesirable fish get swept up along the way, and that’s had a significant impact on the ecology of the ocean. Much research has gone into making existing gear types more efficient at catching the fish they’re meant to target while still allowing non-target species to get away. However, there is one type of fishing gear that inherently creates almost no bycatch. Behold, the mighty harpoon.
Harpooning usually conjures up images of whaling, but modern harpoon fishermen in the U.S. target large pelagic fish like tuna and swordfish. We’ve had the good luck to work with a some members of the harpoon fishery while tagging dogfish up in Cape Cod, and there’s a lot to like about this style of fishing beyond interesting stories. Harpoon boats are usually recognizable by the long bowsprit (basically a long gangway coming off the bow) and having a tall crow’s nest. Both of these aid in sighting large pelagic fish at the surface, at which point the harpooner will run out on the bowsprit with the weapon of choice, while the spotter in the crow’s nest keeps an eye on the target and directs the captain towards it. The whole thing is pretty action-packed and requires a great deal of skill.
While the idea of sticking a fish with a pointy stick definitely wouldn’t get the seal of approval from PETA, it’s actually a relatively quick way to kill the fish and can be made quicker by having the harpoon line hooked up to an electric shocker to finish it off. This is preferable for both humane treatment and the quality of the fish; a fish that was harpooned and killed relatively quickly will have higher-quality meat than one that was stuck in a gillnet for three days. The higher market price brought in by that superior quality means that harpoon fishermen have to kill fewer fish than other methods to make enough to justify the trip. Also, the problem of bycatch is virtually eliminated because the fishermen have the opportunity to see the fish and assess whether it’s undersized or the wrong species before any harm comes to it.
And really, it’s hard to think of a more badass way to put fish on your plate.
Several conservation groups have gotten behind harpoon fishing as a viable alternative to bycatch-prone methods like pelagic longlining. The Eastern Canada harpoon fishery was the first swordfish fishery to be certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council. It’s also been pointed out by Friends of Hector as a good alternative to longline fisheries. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch lists harpooned swordfish as the best choice when choosing your swordfish dinner. I wasn’t able to track down anything specific on the sustainability of tuna harpooning, most likely because bluefin tuna stocks are in notoriously bad shape, but all the accolades for the swordfish fishery suggest that it’s probably the “least worst” way to catch a tuna these days.
Since this is inherently a low-volume fishery, harpooned swordfish and tuna are more of a quality-over-quantity item, which means you’ll probably have to pay more for it. For the same reason there are relatively few harpoon fishermen left in the U.S. Even if every commercial fisherman targeting swordfish and tuna switched over to harpooning, it’s unlikely that the supply could keep with the demand, which is an unfortunate side effect of it being more of an artisanal method. If we want to feed the world with fish we’ll still need to find ways of making the more problematic gear types work.
If you have the means and want a big fish dinner (hopefully not too regularly since these species do tend to be packed with mercury), you should definitely track down harpooned fish. In a lot of ways the old-school ways of fishing are the best ways, but it’s up to us as consumers to keep the demand up.