New Bedford, Massachusetts

Harpoons, Whales, and Swordfish

A fish from 1869 provides a snapshot of New England's maritime history

I recently coauthored a piece for the Naturalist Magazine with Meg Eberle about our oldest specimen and thought I would repost some of the article here.

Since its inception in the late nineteenth century, the Museum of Natural Sciences has archived fish specimens from around the entire world. In addition to being of tremendous scientific value, these specimens occasionally serve as intriguing vignettes of our maritime history. A perfect example is the oldest specimen in the collection: A swordfish (Xiphias gladius) bill on which a rather worn looking label indicates that the swordfish was “Brot [sic] into NEW BEDFORD, MASS. On a ‘Whaler’ about 1869.”

Whaling was once a thriving part of the US economy, and New Bedford was at the epicenter of this industry. Whale parts were used for a variety of everyday products, ranging from oils and soaps to corsets, umbrellas, and skirts. However, whales are not a limitless resource and by 1869, ships were leaving New England and circumnavigating the globe in search of more. Meaning this swordfish bill specimen could have come from any part of the species’ extensive range.

Check out this animated video that reconstructs the routes of whaling vessels over time. By 1869 journeys out of New Bedford were nothing short of monumental.

So what does a swordfish have to do with whaling?

Swordfish are large, predatory fish found throughout the temperate parts of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans. These fish spend their days in very deep water and come to the surface at night, using their bills to swipe and slash at their favorite prey: smaller pelagic fish and squid. One of the fastest animals in the ocean, the hydrodynamic swordfish is an agile and adept hunter, which makes harpooning one by moonlight very unlikely.

However, swordfish have a major weakness. Sometimes, they come to the surface by day to bask in the sun. This makes them an easy target for an opportunistic hunter with a harpoon.

Swordfishing harpooning in the 1800’s used remarkably similar gear to whaling. In Massachusetts, harpooning swordfish was an industry onto itself that was still active up through the 1960’s, by then using planes to first spot fish from there before sending out boats over the water. But by the 1970’s the open ocean fishing industry changed dramatically.

Enter long-lining

By spacing hooks every 50 feet on lines that stretch over 10 miles each, individual boats could harvest more fish in a night than harpooner’s could in a season.
Here is what the typical rig looks like courtesy of a NOAA report

It is safe to say that long-lining is controversial. As anyone who has ever fished can tell you, you can’t completely control what takes the hook. Now imagine a single boat trailing thousands of hooks. Sharks, turtles, and sea birds all have been caught as by-catch. In addition to problems with by-catch, the use of miles and miles of hooks is also really effective at catching lots and lots of swordfish. Too efficient. Just as whalers had over-harvested whales in the Atlantic by the 1890’s, long-lining brought swordfish close to being wiped out in the North Atlantic by the 1990’s.

The future of swordfish

We don’t hear enough stories of conservation success with marine fisheries. But swordfish are such a story. Largely thanks to campaigns in the late 1990’s like give swordfish a break”, that raised consumer awareness and numerous ongoing management efforts, swordfish stocks are rebounding. And we appear to be going full circle in how we harvest them.

Rather than using long-lines, some fishermen now again use harpoons to harvest swordfish. It produces far less by catch and also allows for more control in numbers taken. In fact, the marine stewardship council has certified the Nova Scotia harpoon-based fishery as sustainable. With consumer giants like Whole Foods promoting this fishery, we may well see a rise in harpoon based fishing replacing the use of long-line and other non-targeted fisheries. A return to a fishing practice that, almost 150 years ago, yielded a specimen that would eventually find its way to our collection.

While we don’t know for sure who collected the swordfish that is now in our fish collection and from where, it is a testament to our nautical history. This specimen is a reminder of how our natural history collections are more than just repositories of biological materials for scientists. They document our interactions with the plants and animals of our planet. Each specimen is a unique snapshot in time, part of the historical narrative that provides perspective for facing new challenges as we make our journey into the future.

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