On Canada's exposed and windswept Novia Scotia coast in small fishing communities like the town of Sambro, a few experienced fishermen are keeping alive the waning craft of fishing for swordfish using harpoons. Sambro is the home of Harold Hanneberry, or 'Mister Swordfish' as he is known amongst fishermen up and down the east coast. He holds a number of undisputed records including the harpooning of 202 swordfish without a single miss and catching 40 of the temperamental creatures in one day. He has been going to sea since the age of 4 and is now pushing 99 - quite literally a lifetime of fishing. Harold is a dinosaur amongst fishermen, not least because of his insistence on the superiority of harpooning over line fishing. The shift away from harpooning started way back in the late 1950s with the invention of nylon string which introduced large scale line fishing into this specialised industry. With hard-wearing nylon string the swordfishermen started to bait their fish more efficiently. Lines are laid over 30 to 40 miles with over 1,000 hooks which are in turn suspended off 10 metre long lines. After three or four hooks there's a buoy and every 100 buoys a so called 'highflyer' carries a radio buoy that sends signals back so the fishermen so they can find their lines again. Even this way of working isn't particularly efficient in catching these elusive creatures but strict quotas are being observed nowadays which makes much larger catches problematic for professional fishermen.
The quotas date back to 1970 when unusually high levels of mercury in swordfish triggered a ban on all sale of the produce across North America and different quotas were brought in for those fishing with lines and those who harpoon. Swordfish grow older than many smaller species and being high up the foodchain they ingest larger quantities of mercury which are originally absorbed by algae way down the chain. The quota system has gone through a number of incarnations and been tweaked many times over. It now seems to be delivering the desired result - the return of decent sized swordfish in the North Atlantic and a fishing industry that is sufficiently regulated to avoid the overfishing of the 1960s when swordfish was a means to get rich for some ambitious fishermen.
Traditionalists like Harold Hanneberry sitll reckon that harpooning is not only a more graceful way to hunt but also ensures that the industry remains sustainable. Older swordfish are usually found nearer the surface so harpooned fish have already reproduced a number of times before they are caught. There's no 'collateral damage' with lots of useless fish being pulled out of the sea just to be thrown back in dead. And harpooned swordfish is generally much fresher since the fishermen use much smaller, nimbler craft to track the fish and therefore can't go out as far, thus making shorter trips and getting the fish to the table much more quickly.
Andrew Testa went out onto the misty North Atlantic with some of these stalwarts of swordfish fishing to witness them at their craft A full text by Christoph Scheuring is available on request.