What's On The Menu ?

The Chilean Sea Bass, or Patagonian Toothfish, is a very tasty fish particularly popular in America. Gene looks into why it has suddenly become very expensive and could be getting...
07 September 2005


I love fish. I grew up in New England, outside of Boston, a second-generation Italian American. By geography and by heritage, fish was on my plate often. It wasn't fancy or exotic or raw. It was usually haddock or cod or occasionally lox, but it was delicious. As I grew up my taste and America's taste in fish matured. There was orange roughy, swordfish, salmon, and sushi. It was grilled, poached, blackened. Restaurants had multiple fish entrees on the menu. Sometime back in the 1980s, a new item appeared on the menu and soon after in my local fish market - Chilean Sea Bass. I fell in love with it.

Sea bass is a firm fish, dense and slightly oily, with a clean sweet taste and melt-in-your-mouth texture. As someone who loves to cook, I noticed that it was very forgiving and leant itself well to many different styles of preparation.

By the early 1990s I was a devout sea bass fan. I was not alone. It was all the rage. Every restaurant had its take on this entree. Cookbooks were filled with great sea bass recipes. The price I was paying at the fish market began to climb rapidly. From $9.95 a pound, up to the mid-teens and finally, last I checked, it was selling for $19.95 a pound. I pegged the rise in price directly to its popularity. One thing didn't make sense though. Restaurants everywhere continued to serve it up, and I could still pay under $20 for a complete meal of sea bass with all the fixings. I was puzzled.

I learned after awhile what was going on. I pieced together three different facts. The first, simply that it was very popular. I loved it and everyone else seemed to love it too. The second took a bit more detective work.

While in Maui a few years ago, I decided I wanted to grill some fish instead of going out to a restaurant. I looked everywhere for a shop that sold Opakapaka. There weren't any. But, every restaurant had it on the menu. A local fisherman told me that the restaurants and resorts buy all the local fish taken out of the sea. None make it to the stores. That made me think about all the sea bass in the restaurants back in California. I concluded that the restaurants, the hotels and the resorts were doing the same thing, buying up all the sea bass.

The third factor turned out to be the biggest and the most ominous. Sea bass is being over-fished to such a degree that it might soon be gone, not only from our plates, but from our oceans as well. I admit that I should have figured that out sooner, but with all the information, all the facts and all the disagreement about issues relating to endangered species, human impact on other creatures, destruction of habitat, it simply had not crossed my radar screen.

Toothfish Patagoniantoothfish Here's what I can share with you. Chilean Sea Bass is not a bass at all. It is actually a fish called a Patagonian Toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides), and sometimes included is its cousin, the Antarctic Toothfish. It lives in the cold southern waters off of the continent of Antarctica. It doesn't have much competition there. Of the almost 20,000 species identified in the world's oceans, a bit more than 100 inhabit these waters. It is a unique micro-habitat called the Antarctic Convergence, where the cold waters that flow around Antarctica meet the warmer waters of the seas to the North. It is extreme enough to create a biological barrier to less hearty sea life. The water is extremely cold. It turns out that the toothfish thrives in these waters.

From a biological standpoint, the toothfish is slow growing and is slow to reach sexual maturity, often requiring ten years or more. It is also long living and may live to be over 45 years old. That's not hard to fathom. When a species carves out a niche, relatively free from predators, and rich in food, there is no reason to hurry to have offspring, and no reason to explode the population. The toothfish is primarily a bottom feeder. It can grow up to 6 feet in length and can weigh up to 200 pounds. This is a big fish.

According to officials at NOAA Fisheries, during the 1990's, restaurants and markets in the U.S. began to sell toothfish under the name Chilean Sea Bass. Sounds better than toothfish. In the fishing industry, it is often called 'white gold', and indeed turned into a gold mine for commercial fisheries, especially those that have been restricted in their native waters due to over-fishing of indigenous populations. It is difficult, if not impossible, to police the fleets that come to the Antarctic waters to fish. Fleets that follow the rules bring their catch to facilities that follow the rules. Pirates have their own illegal pipelines to bring the fish to market. Often refrigeration ships, called reefer ships, meet the boats offshore to facilitate the transfer to market.

"Consumers need to know that the fish that finds its way to market is either Patagonian or Antarctic toothfish and is harvested throughout the southern ocean, both legally and illegally," said Gary Matlock, director of Sustainable Fisheries Office for the Fisheries Service. "The rate at which this resource is being exploited is alarming and unsustainable. The scale of illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing for toothfish is a very serious conservation and management concern." Greenpeace reports that in some areas, over 90% of the catch is illegal.

The toothfish story is one of the convergence of many factors: a tasty fish, a profitable fish to catch, a population limited by biology, and geography. Over the last three years, CCAMLR, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, has adopted several measures to attempt to address the illegal fishing and over-fishing of the toothfish. Included are licensing of fleets, catch quotas, and monitoring of fleets. The bad news is that estimates of recent catches show a dramatic increase in toothfish taken. The market craves toothfish. The aim of CCAMLR is not to prevent the harvesting of fishes, but to do it in a renewable and sustainable way. Whether they will be able to impact the serious pirating and over-fishing needs to be seen. It is one step in the right direction.

Another step is awareness. There has been a recent smattering of newspaper articles about the over-fishing of sea bass. Here in my area, several prominent chefs have taken a 'no sea bass' pledge. I passed the counter at the grocery store last week and looked at the sea bass, longingly. Then I looked at all the other fish and thought, what else has been over-fished?

A longer view looks beyond toothfish, beyond over-fishing, beyond the environment. It looks to reflecting on how the pieces fit together. Move a piece here, and it affects something over there. Sometimes it has an effect in ways that nobody sees, or that nobody will notice for a long time. Do you make the connection when you sit down to a meal, or toss something in the trash? I did some research and I found out why sea bass had reached $19.95 a pound. Now you know. Pass it on. Awareness is different than making personal choices. I'll leave that to you. Perhaps though, if we can balance the competing interests, there will occasionally be sea bass on my plate. Until that time I'll refrain.

Facts * CCAMLR Members: Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Chile, European Community (EC), France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Republic of Korea, Namibia, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Russian Federation, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, United Kingdom, Ukraine, United States, Uruguay * Japan and the United States are the largest consumer markets for Patagonian toothfish, followed by Canada and the EU. These countries imported a combined total of nearly 30,000 metric tonnes of Patagonian toothfish products, mostly frozen, in year 2000. This represents over 90% of estimated worldwide trade for the year. * Main catching CCAMLR member countries: Chile (26%), Argentina (23%), France (16%), Australia (11%), UK (9%), and South Africa (5%,) provided over 70% of the products to these countries. * Mauritius was the primary site for landings of IUU-caught Patagonian toothfish in 1999-2000. The study also identified four hot spots" for IUU fishing (Prince Edward Islands, South Africa; Crozet Islands and Kerguelen Islands, France; and Heard and Macdonald Island, Australia).

* Countries identified being involved in IUU fishing: Argentina, Chile, Spain, UK, Uruguay, Belize, Denmark, Panama, Sao Tome & Principe, Seychelles, and Vanuatu.


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