Fishing Gear 101: Harpoons and Spears – Selective Stabbers

Consumers often ask us to describe various types of fishing gear and explain which ones cause the most destruction to the ocean. Another frequent question is why our seafood ratings for a particular species differ depending on the fishing method used. To help answer these questions, we decided to create a Fishing Gear 101 blog series. In this series, we describe how common types of gear work, what they catch, how they affect ocean wildlife and habitats, what technologies or regulations can help lessen the gear’s negative effects, and what we see as the path forward to ensure healthy oceans in the future.

We want to help seafood consumers, businesses, and chefs who use our seafood ratings better understand what the terms ‘trawl’, ‘longline’, or ‘handline’ really mean. We also hope Fishing Gear 101 will help everyone understand the collateral damage that fishing can cause to the ocean and the importance of choosing seafood caught in a responsible way.

Next in this series we are covering harpoons and spears. Both of these fishing methods involve visually identifying the target fish, and then stabbing or spearing it. That means that these fishing methods have virtually no negative effects on non-target ocean species or ocean habitats!


Harpoons and Spears  –  Selective Stabbers

What are harpoons and spears?

A harpoon is a long pole, made of wood or aluminum, with a steel point or dart at the end of it to stab the fish. Harpoon is a traditional fishing method that requires great skill. The first step is to spot the fish from a boat. Typically one fisherman is the “spotter”, while another stands at the front of the boat ready with the harpoon. Once fishermen identify the fish they want to catch, they carefully approach the fish, until they get close enough to shoot or thrust the harpoon into the animal to kill it. The harpoon is typically connected to a line so that fishermen can pull their catch on to the boat1.

harpoon fishing

Harpoon boat (left) and harpoon fishing in action (right). Credit: Carl Safina.


Spear fishing takes a similar approach, but instead of fishing from a boat, the fishermen get in the water, and either snorkel, free-dive, or scuba dive, to find their desired catch. Once they spot their target fish, they stab it with their spear. The spear can be any type of device that is designed to puncture the fish. This is also an ancient fishing method.

spear fishermen

Spear fishermen. Credit: Jim Catlin/Marine Photobank.


What do harpoons and spears catch?

Fishermen use harpoons to catch very large fish, like swordfish or bluefin tuna, at certain times of the year when these fish are found swimming in surface waters.

Fishermen often use spears to catch species that live around coral reefs, including snappers, groupers, lionfish, and octopus.

harpoon and spearfishing catch

Top left: Harpoon fisherman hauling in his swordfish catch. Credit: Carl Safina. Top right: Fisherman spearing an octopus. Credit: Arlo Hemphill/Marine Photobank. Bottom left: Fisherman spearing a lionfish. Credit: Naomi Blinick, National Park Service/Marine Photobank. Bottom right: A hogfish, a common target by spear fishermen, swims around a coral reef. Credit: NOAA.


How do harpoons and spears affect the ocean?

Since harpoon and spear fishermen identify the type and size of fish before they kill it, there is no bycatch (the catch of non-target fish). Additionally these gears do not come into contact with bottom ocean habitats, except when fishermen miss the fish (which does happen occasionally).

It should be noted, however, that high levels of spear fishing on coral reefs can rapidly reduce reef fish abundance2.

What can be done to lessen the negative effects of this fishing gear?

Because this fishing method has no negative effects on non-target ocean wildlife or ocean habitats, measures to lessen negative effects are not needed. But it is important that managers establish regulations to prevent overfishing by spear fishermen on coral reefs2.

The Path Forward

Harpoon fishing and spear fishing are ocean-friendly ways to fish, as long as fishermen are targeting abundant, well-managed fish species.

These fishing methods can be labor intensive, but they do have some benefits. Fishermen can deliver their fresh, high-quality catch directly to local or regional chefs, retailers, and consumers, and as a result they may be rewarded with a premium price. To learn about the highly successful and green-rated Canadian swordfish harpoon fishery watch Saving the Ocean with Carl Safina Swordfish! Part 1 and Swordfish! Part 2.

To learn how spear fishing for the invasive lionfish in the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, and Caribbean could provide benefits to ocean ecosystems, see Saving the Ocean with Carl Safina Scourge of the Lionfish. A spear fishery for lionfish has been gaining traction in the U.S., as more retailers and chefs have expressed interest in selling this species. U.S. lionfish is rated green.

Hooked? Check out the entire Fishing Gear 101 series here!


1.) Harpoon fishing, FAO Fisheries; How we fish matters, Ecology Action Centre, Living Oceans Society, and Marine Conservation Biology InstituteSwordfish! Part 1 and Swordfish! Part 2, Saving the Ocean with Carl Safina.

2.) Effects of spear fishing on reef populations in a multi-use conservation area, PLoS ONE.

Elizabeth Brown-Hornstein is a Research Scientist at The Safina Center. 

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