The Swordfish Hunters

Thomas Armbruster / SandyHook SeaLife Foundation / 310 pages

In The Swordfish Hunters: The Life, Death and Future of Xiphius gladius, marine biologist and physician Dr. Thomas Armbruster recounts in vivid detail his time spent as a young deckhand on a swordfish longline vessel, the Defiance, in the 1980s. This is, at its heart, a book about fishing, similar at first glance to episodes of Deadliest Catch in its descriptions of life on board a commercial fishing vessel. What sets it apart is the author’s abundantly evident concern for the future of this awe-inspiring species, one of the largest ocean predators. Armbruster’s portrayal of the beauty and strength of the broadbill swordfish is accompanied by charming and informative pencil sketches from illustrator Tony Troy. 

In addition to his descriptions of Xiphius gladius, the author writes with emotion and wonder about other large, highly migratory marine species, including sharks, tuna, and whales. He holds nothing back in his description of the brutality of the longline hunt, and his condemnation of the industrialized modern fishing technologies that have decimated wild fish populations for decades. There is one particularly jarring, difficult-to-read moment in the book, however, when the author describes a run-in with the Defiance’s canine mascot, Mutt. Armbruster’s treatment of the tiny dog stands in stark contrast to the compassion and respect he manifests for the marine animals he encountered on his voyage. 

The book is an expansion of Armbruster’s 2002 volume, The Crimson Broadbill: Commercial Swordfishing the NW Atlantic. The author brings that book’s observations on overfishing and the state of the oceans up to date, however, by including an annex with updated research and identification of new and growing threats to marine life, such as bycatch, illegal fishing, and pollution. Most importantly, Armbruster closes the annex with a challenge to readers to become active marine conservationists, noting that the future survival of the ocean and marine life is the responsibility of us all.