Once upon a time—basically the 1980s—swordfish was the trendy food of the US culinary scene. It seemed to be in every cookbook, on every backyard grill and every restaurant menu—which led to overfishing and a challenge to the swordfish population. A Give Swordfish a Break boycott was started, and the US National Marine Fisheries Service launched a swordfish protection plan. That was the late ’90s. Today, according to one of the nation’s best-known and most successful commercial fishing captains, swordfish are back, and no one needs to feel politically incorrect about eating them.
“While I thought [the boycott and protection plan] was misguided at the time, I can say my experience the past three years I swordfished is entirely different from what I was catching” before, says Linda Greenlaw, who is known as America’s only female swordfishing captain. She was the featured guest at a lunch Wednesday at the Hamilton, part of the Clyde’s Restaurant Group, which will be offering her branded Linda Greenlaw swordfish on the menus at all its restaurants. She’s proud of her catch. “Anything you buy that has my name on it is 100 percent maximum sustainable yield,” she says. “It’s going to be from the North Atlantic ocean. It’s a long-line fish … and 90 percent of the boats we are sourcing fish from are using circle hooks,” which she calls a “huge tool” in rebuilding the population.
Greenlaw’s measure of the rebound of the swordfish population, she says, is size. She says that before the enforced regulations her catch had shrunk down to an average of about 100 pounds per fish. “The average fish of the past three years is 170 to 200 pounds.”
Greenlaw makes her home in Maine. When she’s not at sea—often for as long as a month at a time—she writes best-selling books and appears on the Discovery Channel program Swords: Life on the Line. She was also a key figure in Sebastian Junger’s book The Perfect Storm, which told the story of the fatal voyage of the Andrea Gail in a catastrophic Atlantic superstorm. Greenlaw was out in that storm, too, trying to maintain radio contact with her friends on the Gail, to warn them of the growing intensity of the storm. In the film of the book, she was portrayed by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. She said that wasn’t the worst storm she’d ever experienced, but she wasn’t in the worst part of it—her friends were, grappling waves reportedly as high as 100 feet.
Greenlaw describes herself as a reluctant celebrity. When The Perfect Storm was published to much acclaim, publishers started to come after her, too. “I was very happy with my female fisherman thing, and had no interest, desire or aspiration to write anything,” she says. But major publishers in New York City kept calling to ask her to write a book. She recognized it was an opportunity most people would beg for. She wrote her first nonfiction book, The Hungry Ocean, in 1999, followed by The Lobster Chronicles in 2002, All Fishermen Are Liars in 2004, and Lifesaving Lessons in 2013; she has published two cookbooks with her mother; and also has written two mysteries, Slipknot and Fishermen’s Bend. Still, she finds time to go to sea.
During the lunch, she told us some interesting facts about swordfish. For example, the most desirable swordfish is called a “bullet,” because it is so fresh and healthy that the flesh is rigid. Swordfish caught in foul weather isn’t as high quality as fish caught in fair weather, because in a storm the fish can get banged around and bruised. Swordfish are “highly migratory” but do not spawn in the North Atlantic. They go south, to the Caribbean, and Greenlaw follows them there. “When I fish down there I get fish with a lot of eggs,” she shared. She described life at sea as long periods of boredom broken up by spells of excitement. But the important takeaway: “Swordfish are fun. They are a fun fish to catch. They are colorful. Beautiful. It’s a challenge to catch a swordfish but worth it.”
Her life is not only swordfish, however. Her husband is building her a new fiberglass lobster boat, and she’s looking forward to day trips for lobsters, a crop which she says has become robust. “It was big the year before, bigger last year and even bigger this year,” she says. “It’s because of global warming. They are shedding twice. We have soft shell lobsters in October. We’ve never had that before.” She anticipates a continued boom in the lobster population.
We had to ask: Does she eat fish every day, or never? “About four days a week,” she said. And how does she like her swordfish? “The best preparation is a little bit of olive oil, salt, and pepper and on the grill.”