Harpoon Fishing is Totally Badass

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.

An example of a harpoon boat. Image from thefishmarket.com.

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.


  1. Alan Dove · August 9, 2011

    I can think of one fishing method that might be more badass: spearfishing. Whether done with scuba gear or freediving, that brings fishing about as close to true hunting as any technique can. Of course, it also suffers from the same low-volume limitation as harpooning.

    However, low-volume techniques like these seem perfect for large pelagic predators such as tuna and swordfish, which frankly nobody needs to eat. I think we need to have an intelligent public discussion of the real environmental economics of fish production and consumption, rather than lumping all fisheries together and demanding that all of their products be equally cheap and plentiful in order to “feed the world.”

    Supply can never keep up with demand – they’re two curves that intersect someplace and determine a price. It’s okay if some fish are radically more expensive than others, as long as at least a few healthful choices remain cheap. Indeed, in an ideal world that would be exactly what we’d see, with each species’ price reflecting the full social cost of extracting it.

    • Chuck · August 9, 2011

      One could make the argument that spearfishing is harpooning underwater (and at least one site I looked at while writing this tried to make that case), but it is still badass, especially if you’re freediving. I agree with you that species like bluefin tuna and swordfish probably should be low-volume luxury items. Certain species of tuna (skipjack and albacore for example) have shown that, fished responsibly, they can sustain a fairly high level of harvest, but the attempt to make bluefin tuna available for everyone all the time has been devastating. Swordfish, on the other hand, is actually a healthy stock, but bycatch of sharks and turtles is a big issue when fishing it at industrial levels. I say take ‘em old-school with the pointy stick.

  2. Jordan Nikoloyuk · August 9, 2011

    Great article, and a really good point made by Alan above. The only thing I am not sure about is the conclusion that harpooning can’t produce a large supply of swordfish. Here in Canada, only 10% of the swordfish quota is allocated to harpooners and the other 90% to longliners (who can also fish with harpoons if they want). Every year there are fishermen with harpoon licenses who want to fish, but there’s not enough quota to go around.

    In recent years, the high price offered for harpoon-caught swordfish has created an incentive for longliners to harpoon instead. I believe that the Canadian quota was about 30% harpoon-caught last year. With proper incentives – or with a quota redistribution – we could drive this number even higher and protect hundreds of sea turtles and tens of thousands of sharks.

    The other benefit from a quota redistribution would be in employment. You mention that the higher quality means a higher price. Lower overhead costs also mean that a lot more fishermen could make a living catching the same number of fish if the harpoon fleet got some support.

    Unfortunately, with a Marine Stewardship Council certification of the longline fleet, the best way to differentiate between these gear types will disappear. At http://www.friendsofhector.org we are asking the MSC to remember that it is supposed to be promoting sustainable fishing practices, and to not certify Canadian longline swordfish.

    • Chuck · August 9, 2011

      Thanks for the comment Jordan. You make a very interesting point about the low coast of overhead for harpoon boats. A harpoon operation is usually comprised of 3 or 4 people on a single vessel, so you have a higher boat:fisherman ratio in the fishery. In order to take on an amount of the swordfish quota comparable to longlining, you’d need a lot more fishermen with a lot more boats, each catching relatively fewer (but higher value) fish. That means more employed fishermen, more boats being bought/maintained/improved, and a higher quality product with virtually no bycatch. By making the fishery less efficient at a “number of boats” level, it would actually create more jobs and become more efficient at bringing in the target species. To someone concerned with sustainable fishing this seems like a win on all levels. I would love to get comments from actual harpoon fishermen on how feasible a larger harpoon fishery would be.

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  4. Troy · August 9, 2011

    Actually, about 20% of the Canadian quota is taken by harpoon annually. The Canadian quota was divided up based on historical catch history between the harpoon fleet and the longline fleet, with the harpoon fleet receiving almost twice it’s historic share. Both fleets were in an over capacity situation at that time and were required to reduce effort so that capacity would match the Canadian quota. The longline fleet has reduced effort with about half the fleet actively fishing and about 1/3rd of the active fleet harpooning with their longline license. Unless the Canadian quota increases dramatically, there is no room for an expansion of effort by either fleet.

    By the way, Jordan, if the longline fleet is certified by the MSC, it will be because they have met the same criteria as the harpoon fleet. If that turns out to be the case, that’s great for both fisheries.

    • Jordan Nikoloyuk · August 9, 2011

      Thanks for correcting the figure Troy.

      I am sure it is obvious to you that either fleet could expand its effort within the Canadian quota requirements if the other’s effort was reduced accordingly.

      The ‘Why Sharks Matter’ Blog on this site has previously examined the MSC certification of the longline fleet http://www.southernfriedscience.com/?p=9979.

      David concluded that “Based on the information in the Moody report and the Friends of Hector campaign, I do not believe that the Canadian Atlantic longline swordfish fishery should be considered sustainable.”

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