Swordfish: A Biography of the Ocean Gladiator

Swordfish: A Biography of the Ocean Gladiator

by Richard Ellis

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A perfect fish in the evolutionary sense, the broadbill swordfish derives its name from its distinctive bill—much longer and wider than the bill of any other billfish—which is flattened into the sword we all recognize. And though the majesty and allure of this warrior fish has commanded much attention—from adventurous sportfishers eager to land one


A perfect fish in the evolutionary sense, the broadbill swordfish derives its name from its distinctive bill—much longer and wider than the bill of any other billfish—which is flattened into the sword we all recognize. And though the majesty and allure of this warrior fish has commanded much attention—from adventurous sportfishers eager to land one to ravenous diners eager to taste one—no one has yet been bold enough to truly take on the swordfish as a biographer. Who better to do so than Richard Ellis, a master of marine natural history? Swordfish: A Biography of the Ocean Gladiator is his masterly ode to this mighty fighter.

The swordfish, whose scientific name means “gladiator,” can take on anyone and anything, including ships, boats, sharks, submarines, divers, and whales, and in this book Ellis regales us with tales of its vitality and strength. Ellis makes it easy to understand why it has inspired so many to take up the challenge of epic sportfishing battles as well as the longline fishing expeditions recounted by writers such as Linda Greenlaw and Sebastian Junger. Ellis shows us how the bill is used for defense—contrary to popular opinion it is not used to spear prey, but to slash and debilitate, like a skillful saber fencer. Swordfish, he explains, hunt at the surface as well as thousands of feet down in the depths, and like tuna and some sharks, have an unusual circulatory system that gives them a significant advantage over their prey, no matter the depth in which they hunt. Their adaptability enables them to swim in waters the world over—tropical, temperate, and sometimes cold—and the largest ever caught on rod and reel was landed in Chile in 1953, weighing in at 1,182 pounds (and this heavyweight fighter, like all the largest swordfish, was a female).

Ellis’s detailed and fascinating, fact-filled biography takes us behind the swordfish’s huge, cornflower-blue eyes and provides a complete history of the fish from prehistoric fossils to its present-day endangerment, as our taste for swordfish has had a drastic effect on their population the world over. Throughout, the book is graced with many of Ellis’s own drawings and paintings, which capture the allure of the fish and bring its splendor and power to life for armchair fishermen and landlocked readers alike.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Ellis—marine biologist, author (The Great Sperm Whale), and painter—adds a thorough exploration of Xiphias gladius to his expansive library of books about sea creatures. Once hunted as large game by "macho fishermen" such as Ernest Hemingway and Zane Grey, swordfish decreased in both numbers and size until the 1970s. Conservation efforts and restrictions in hunting and fishing have successfully increased numbers of this fish, "one of the most spectacularly beautiful animals on earth; one of the largest and fastest, as well as the most heavily armed of all fishes;... one of the ocean realm's most powerful hunters." Ellis reviews the history of the swordfish and its ancestors, known through fossils, and how changing climate and other factors have affected their range, both past and the present. Ellis discusses the biology of the swordfish; whether swordfish and their relatives, which include marlins, spearfish, and sailfish, are dangerous to humans; and concerns related to swordfish consumption, such as mercury and parasites. With many photographs and illustrations—from sport hunters with their giant, armed catches to paintings of related fish by the author—and stimulating, flowing text, readers will find themselves absorbing many details about this fascinating creature. 51 halftones, 3 line drawings. (Apr.)
Times Literary Supplement
Swordfish has plenty to offer, from striking facts to adventures on the high seas. . . . Ellis paints the picture of an enigmatic fish and delivers plenty for the reader to enjoy.”
“A fascinating dip into the history and biology of a seagoing sabre fighter.”
Wall Street Journal
“Mr. Ellis has trawled a vast range of sources to present the current state of swordfish knowledge in a clear, accessible and—to this pisciphile reviewer—riveting way. . . . I would be surprised if there is a single pertinent fact about swordfish that is missing from Mr. Ellis’s commendably concise text. But it is the mystery of fish and fish lives that makes them so beguiling. We can intrude on their world, for sport, sustenance or study. But we do not belong in it, so we can never know it all, which is just as it should be.”
Literary Review
"Notable American marine artist Richard Ellis certainly knows his fish. . . . This is an intriguing book about a fascinating creature."
Brad Matsen
“Richard Ellis writes that the swordfish is a ‘graceful, tapered teardrop of a fish’ that has enchanted and mystified humans since their most ancient encounters with this unique being. Ellis is one of a kind, too, a meticulous researcher and a fine writer who has brought to life more creatures of the sea than anyone working today. They come together in Swordfish: A Biography of the Ocean Gladiator for a great read and a valuable addition to our understanding of the ocean and its inhabitants.”
Ellen Prager
“Talk about a fish story!  With wit and masterful writing, Richard Ellis unveils the grandeur of the swordfish. He makes the reader laugh at the impossible tales told, while stunning us with the broadbill’s biology, history, and potential downfall due to overfishing. You cannot help but respect and marvel at one of the ocean’s most wondrous beasts after this fascinating read.”
Carl Safina
“Richard Ellis has to be the most productive and wide-minded person writing about the oceans today. In Swordfish, author and fish are the perfect match, both at the top of their games, masters of the realm they inhabit. In this awestruck and respectful book, swordfish, for once, get the treatment they deserve.”
author of Great Waters Cramer

“With a keen eye for detail and a great ear for a good story, Richard Ellis takes us to this mighty ocean warrior, into the depths to chase dinners of three hundred pound squid, across the water into exhilarating contests with fishermen, and through history, where the once decimated swordfish is perhaps resurging. Magnificent and wide-ranging, like the fish itself, Ellis’s biography reconstructs in all its glory, a mythic story.”

Deborah Cramer
“With a keen eye for detail and a great ear for a good story, Richard Ellis takes us to this mighty ocean warrior, into the depths to chase dinners of three hundred pound squid, across the water into exhilarating contests with fishermen, and through history, where the once decimated swordfish is perhaps resurging. Magnificent and wide-ranging, like the fish itself, Ellis’s biography reconstructs in all its glory, a mythic story.”
Library Journal
Nature writers tread a thin line between the scientific and the easily accessible. Here, Ellis's (The Great Sperm Whale: A Natural History of the Ocean's Most Magnificent and Mysterious Creature) extensive knowledge of marine biology makes the writing more technical than most natural histories. Still, this latest work is far from dry: it's a wonderful paean to the swordfish in all its gladiatorial glory. Ellis traces how humans have feared, hunted, interacted with, and ultimately affected these massive marine creatures from swordfish swords found in 5000-year-old middens to the effects of global warming on today's swordfish populations. VERDICT Full of scientific names and other technical terminology, this work might be a stretch for those without a biology background or seeking a fun popular science read. But for future marine biologists and those with a serious interest in the topic, this title will prove to be a wonderful introduction not only to the life-and-death struggle of Xiphias gladius but also to the deeper, more complex scientific world of the ocean.—Susan E. Brazer, Salisbury Univ. Lib., MA

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A Biography of the Ocean Gladiator


Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-92290-4

Chapter One

Man Meets Swordfish

The earliest known inhabitants of what is now the state of Maine were the "Moorehead People," named for archaeologist Warren K. Moorehead, who excavated many of their sites. Four or five thousand years ago, these early "Native Americans" fished for cod and swordfish, probably from dugout or birchbark canoes. How do we know that? The canoes did not last, but archaeologists have examined shell mounds—known as middens, from the Danish word for trash heap—which contain the discarded shells of clams, oysters, mussels, and whelks and also traces of the culture that ate the mollusks or used them for bait. Buried among the shells are tools, including barbed hooks and harpoon heads made of deer bone. There are also pieces of the swordfish swords, suggesting that the Moorehead People hunted these great fish, and at that time, the swordfish were probably found a lot closer to shore than they are today. University of Maine archaeologist David Sanger has made a study of the middens and is convinced that swordfish formed an important part of the diet of these people, despite the fearsome reputation of the fish.

You probably wouldn't want to be in a birchbark canoe with an angry swordfish attached to it by a line, but Sanger discounts the pugnacious nature of swordfish strikes, claiming (as I do) that the fish couldn't determine that the source of its pain or discomfort was the canoe and that "attacks" on boats were mostly accidental. If the swordfish were sunning close to shore, the Moorehead harpooners would paddle out, heave the harpoon, lash the fish to the canoe, and butcher it at sea, bringing in only the most desirable pieces. Other archaeologists are not convinced of the "offshore butchering" hypothesis; Arthur Spiess and Robert Lewis found many more vertebrae and other bones at the Turner Farm site in Penboscot Bay and suggested that is was more likely that the fish were brought to shore to be cut up. Swordfish off the Maine Coast are not found close to shore nowadays, suggesting different conditions 4,000 years ago. Perhaps the water was warmer then, or there might have been other factors that drove the fish further offshore. The Moorehead People disappeared about 3,800 years ago, and the middens are topped with the refuse of people who evidently did not hunt swordfish, because no pieces of sword appear after that date. Did the Moorehead People die off because their food source moved away or were they overrun by another people?

On the opposite coast of North America, we find another aboriginal people intimately involved with swordfish. The Chumash of the Santa Barbara region of California were the finest boat builders among the California Indians. They made wooden plank canoes from redwood logs they obtained as driftwood from the Santa Barbara Channel. Their livelihood was based largely on the sea; they used over 100 kinds of fish and gathered clams, mussels, and abalone. But, as Davenport, Johnson and Timbrook wrote in their 1993 study, the evidence of a "special relationship" between the Chumash and the swordfish (which they called elyewu'n) "is available to us from a number of different sources: linguistic, ethnographic (recorded myths, ceremonial dances); archaeological (finds of swordfish parts, harpoon pieces, portrayals in Chumash art); and technical (fishing techniques and some facets of swordfish behavior)."

To the maritime Chumash, the swordfish was a creature with both material and ritual significance. They ate the meat, of course, but also used the sword and vertebral processes as spear points and digging implements; the large vertebrae were cut in half to make cups, and although it has not been preserved, there was a swordfish headdress made from the skull of the fish, thought to have been used in important ceremonial dances. The skull was decorated with shell inlay, especially around the large orbit, and there was a cape of iridescent abalone shells trailing behind the dancer, who was probably the village shaman. To the Chumash, swordfish was believed to be the chief of all the sea animals; the marine counterpart of human beings. When whales were stranded on the shore, they were said to have been driven ashore by swordfish to provide food for the people. The story of the swordfish attacking the whale is a part of many mythologies, from ancient Greek to California Indian. But even though the swordfish has no teeth and would have no reason to attack a whale, Davenport et al. include some of these stories as "eye-witness accounts."

We will never know when the first fisherman cast his hook (or spear or net) into the water, but it is safe to assume that fishing is much older than civilization. The earliest fisherman caught their prey for subsistence; fish served as a plentiful source of protein. More or less contemporaneous with the Moorehead People, an Egyptian scene dating from around 2000 BC shows figures using a rod and line and also nets; in the ancient Minoan stronghold of Akrotiri on the Aegean island of Santorini, archaeologists have uncovered wall paintings that show two young men, each with strings of recently caught fish. The Minoan artists were so accurate that it is no problem to identify the fish they are holding: one man holds a string of bonito (Sarda sarda); the other has two strings of dolphinfish, Coryphaena hippurus. The island was partially destroyed in a giant volcanic explosion around 1600 BC, so the paintings are indisputable evidence of fishing more than 3,000 years ago. It is reasonable to assume that fishing was practiced wherever and whenever people believed there was seafood to be harvested.

Fish and cephalopods of all sorts were found in mosaics at Pompeii, buried by the ash from Mount Vesuvius in 79 ad Fishing is discussed by the chroniclers of ancient Greece and Rome, including Homer, Aristotle, Aelian, Pliny the Elder (who was killed by the eruption of Vesuvius), Strabo, and Pausanias. But, as William Radcliffe put it in his Fishing from the Earliest Times,

No character in Homer ever sailed for recreation or fished for sport. They were far too near the primitive life to find any joy in such pursuits. Men scarcely ever hunted or fished for mere pleasure. These occupations were not mere pastimes; they were counted on as hard labor. Hunting and fishing and laying snares for birds in Homer and even in the classical periods had but one aim: food.

Strabo, the Roman geographer who was born around 58 BC and died around 24 ad, traveled throughout the Roman world and recorded his observations in eight volumes. He described the manner in which they catch the swordfish off Sicily:

One lookout directs the whole body of fishers, who are in a vast number of small boats, each furnished with two oars, and two men to each boat. One man rows, the other stands on the prow, spear in hand, while the lookout has to signal the appearance of a sword-fish. (This fish, when swimming, has about a third of its body above water.) As it passes the boat, the fisher darts the spear from his hand, and when this is withdrawn, it leaves the sharp point with which it is furnished sticking in the flesh of the fish: this point is barbed, and loosely fixed to the spear for the purpose; it has a long end fastened to it; this they pay out to the wounded fish, till it is exhausted with its struggling and endeavors at escape. Afterwards they trail it to the shore, or, unless it is too large and full-grown, haul it into the boat.... It sometimes happens that the rower is wounded, even through the boat, and such is the size of the sword with which the galeote (sword-fish) is armed; such is the strength of the fish, and the method of the capture, that in danger it is not surpassed by the chase of the wild boar.

Approximately a century after Strabo, the second-century ad Greek poet Oppian described fishing for swordfish in Halieutica, his hexameter poem on fishing:

The fishermen fashion boats in the likeness of the Swordfishes themselves, with fishlike body and swords, and steer to meet the fish. The Swordfish shrinks not from the chase, believing that what he sees are not benched ships but other Swordfishes, the same race as himself, until the men encircle him on every side. Afterwards he perceives his folly when pierced by the three-pronged spear; and he has no strength to escape for all his desire but perforce is overcome. Many a time as he fights, the valiant fish with his sword pierces in his turn right through the belly of the ship; and the fishers with blows of brazen axe swiftly strike all his sword from his jaws, and it remains fast in the ship's wound like a rivet, while the fish, orphaned of his strength, is hauled in. As when men devising a trick of war against their foes, being eager to come within their towers and city, strip the armour from the bodies of the slain and arm themselves therewith and rush nigh the gates; and the others fling open their gates as for their own townsmen in their haste, and have no joy of their friends; even so do boats in his own likeness deceive the Swordfish.

Moreover, when encircled in the crooked arms of the net the greatly stupid Swordfish perishes by his own folly. He leaps in his desire to escape but near at hand he is afraid of the plaited snare and shrinks back again; there is no weapon in his wits such as is set in his jaws, and like a coward he remains aghast till they hale him forth upon the beach, where with downward-sweeping blow of many spears men crush his head, and he perishes by a foolish doom.

Although Italian and Spanish fishermen have hunted pesce spada or espadón in the Mediterranean for centuries (and still do), the western North Atlantic swordfishery is a relatively recent development. Comparatively speaking, of course, the European settlement of the western shore of the North Atlantic is itself a recent development. The first published record of North Atlantic swordfish—and a swordfish attack on a boat—appears in John Josselyn's 1675 Account of Two Voyages to New England, in which he wrote, "In the afternoon [of June 20, 1638] we saw a great fish called the vehuella or Sword fish, having a long, strong, and sharp fin like a sword-blade on the top of its head, with which he pierced our Ship, and broke it off with striving to get loose, one of our sailors dived and brought it aboard."

Cod fishermen, first from Europe, and then from New England and Canada, had been working the offshore waters of the western North Atlantic from the time that John Cabot pulled up a basketful of cod in 1497, and it is unlikely that the fishermen overlooked those sickle fins that occasionally broke the surface. Regardless of its pugnacity, a big, firm-fleshed fish could not swim unmolested off New England for long, and by the early years of the nineteenth century, a swordfishery had begun. In David Storer's 1839 "Reports on the Fishes, Reptiles and Birds of Massachusetts," we find this description of the swordfish and the fishery:

It is generally discovered by the projection of its dorsal fin above the surface of the water as it is pursuing shoals of mackerel upon which its feeds, about 15 or 20 miles from the shore of Martha's Vineyard. The fishermen capture it by means of an instrument called the "lily iron" from the form of its shafts or wings which resemble the leaves of a lily. The instrument is thrown like a harpoon with great force into the fish, the attempt always being made to wound the animal in front of the dorsal fin.... When unmolested, it not infrequently is observed to spring several times its length, several feet above the surface of the water.

In his 1887 history of the American swordfishery, G. B. Goode quotes a certain Captain Merchant of Gloucester, who told him that "the first swordfish ever brought to Gloucester within his recollection was caught on George's Bank around 1831 by Captain Pew who brought it in and sold it at the rate of $8 a barrel, salted." Before that, fishermen had been very much afraid of them, but afterward a good many were caught. Goode then identifies "the earliest record of its use for food ... found in the Barnstable Patriot of June 30, 1841, in which it was stated that the fishermen of the island south of Cape Cod take a considerable number of these fish every year by harpooning them and that about 200 pounds a year are pickled and salted at Martha's Vineyard."

We find many references to swordfishing from New England ports in the early nineteenth century, but evidently the Canadians didn't catch or eat swordfish until the turn of the twentieth. In the 1903 Canada Department of Marine and Fisheries' Annual Report, we read:

A new industry sprang up here this year in the catching of sword fish and quite a number were caught. The catching of these excellent fish has been an industry for a number of years on the coast of the United States, but it has never been followed here. It was discovered here this year that these fish were unusually abundant in our waters, and as the price is usually a good one, our fishermen fitted out with harpoons and other appliances to capture them with the result that quite a number were taken and another year will probably see an important business done if the swordfish are as numerous as they were this season. They are among the best of the edible fishes, as all who have tasted can testify.

Outside of New England, though, not many people were acquainted with the firm, white flesh of the swordfish. Before she wrote Silent Spring and the Sea around Us, marine biologist Rachel Carson (1907–64) was editor-in-chief for the US Fish and Wildlife Service. In a 1943 report, she discussed some of the little-known seafoods that could be eaten during wartime food shortages:

The swordfish ranks high among the "quality fish" of New England. Thick steaks entirely free from small bones are cut from this large fish. They are excellent when broiled, and planked swordfish is a special delicacy. The flesh is something like halibut in consistency, but it is more oily and has a rich, indescribable flavor that is different from that of any product of the sea. The vitamin content of swordfish liver oil is exceptionally high.

Even in the days before industrial fishing, commercial fish catches were measured in pounds or tons. Obviously, you cannot count the actual number of codfish, herring, or mackerel that are caught, so measurement by weight was considered a convenient requisite. Among other things, this reduces (or enlarges) the fish to a commodity, which makes it easy to forget that the "product" was once a living creature. In their 1953 synopsis of the fishes of the Gulf of Maine, Bigelow and Schroeder wrote, "Our only clue to the numbers of swordfish that visit our waters is the poundage landed yearly. The smallest year's catch reported landed at Portland, Gloucester, and Boston, within the period of 1904 to 1929 was 833,000 pounds (in 1919), the largest was 4,593,000 pounds (in 1929), the average about 2,000,000 pounds or anywhere between 4,000 and 18,000 fish per year. And the landings in New En gland ports ran from 1,715,000 to 5,070,000 pounds during the decade 1930 to 1939." Bear in mind that these catches were all accomplished one fish at a time; every one of those 18,000 fish was spotted, harpooned, brought aboard a fishing boat, and prepared for market. As Jordan and Evermann write, "Practically all the swordfish brought in to market are harpooned, we have never heard of one caught in net or seine, nor is it likely that any net now in use would hold a large one."

In the early days of the New England swordfishery, between 1883 and 1895, the average dressed weight of swordfish, according to Bigelow and Schroeder, was "between 200 pounds and 310 pounds, falling to 114–186 pounds for the years 1917, 1919, 1926, and 1929–30.... A 7-foot fish weighs abut 120 pounds; 10 to 11-foot fish about 250 pounds; fish of 13 to 13½ feet, about 600 to 700 pounds." (All measurements include the sword, which made up approximately one-third of the fish's total length.) There once were tens of thousands of swordfish swimming around the Gulf of Maine, and each of them required hundreds of thousands of baitfishes to sustain them—the Gulf of Maine must have been wall-to-wall fishes. (Never mind the uncountable planktonic animals that were required to sustain the baitfishes.) In an earlier ocean unpopulated by fishermen, the swordfish was at the peak of the food pyramid; it was the apex of apex predators, dominant and unthreatened. Then came the harpooners.


Excerpted from Swordfish by RICHARD ELLIS Copyright © 2013 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Richard Ellis lives in New York and is the author of more than twenty books on marine life, including Great White Shark, Men and Whales, Monsters of the Sea, The Encyclopedia of the Sea, Deep Atlantic, The Search for the Giant Squid, TheEmpty Ocean, Tuna: A Love Story, The Great Sperm Whale, and Shark: A Visual History. A renowned painter of marine natural history, his paintings have been exhibited in museums and galleries around the world, and have appeared in such publications as Skin Diver, Audubon, National Wildlife, NationalGeographic, and the Encyclopedia Britannica, as well as his own books.  

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