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Chilean Sea Bass: Back in Stores But Still in Trouble

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
November 28, 2006
 
A trendy fish nearly loved to death by diners has received a limited
green stamp of approval.

But conservationists warn that the Patagonian toothfish, known commercially as the Chilean sea bass, remains in serious trouble.

(Photo gallery: "Sea Bass Fishers Weather the Storm.")

The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)—a London-based nonprofit that certifies fish from sustainable, monitored fisheries—has given its OK to Patagonian toothfish caught in one fishery.

But that fishery, located near South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands on the cusp of Antarctica (See a printable map of the South Sandwich Islands), accounts for only 10 percent of the legal trade in Chilean sea bass, the group says.

"[T]he South Georgia fishery is a sustainable fishery … . [I]f people want to buy toothfish, they should look for toothfish that has the MSC label," said Jim Humphreys, a Seattle-based MSC regional director.

Humphreys conceded that the Patagonian toothfish faces "significant problems" elsewhere.

MSC certification identifies producers who fish sustainably. The seal of approval seeks to provide consumer-driven economic incentives to boost sustainable fisheries.

Mixed Message?

But some conservationists worry about the green label.

"We think it confuses the consumer," said Mark Stevens, of the Washington, D.C.-based National Environmental Trust (NET).

"They may not know that this represents only 10 percent of the Chilean sea bass that is on the market," Stevens added.

"There is still a major problem with overfishing and illegal fishing of Chilean sea bass, and as long as there is demand in the U.S., that fishing will continue."

After a seven-year hiatus, the Whole Foods Market grocery chain, which has 155 outlets in North America and the United Kingdom, has resumed selling Chilean sea bass in its stores. The company sells only fish from the MSC-certified fishery.

Whole Foods' supply chain has been rigorously vetted by MSC to ensure that unsustainably fished sea bass do not creep into the mix.

"As far as I know, no other grocery store, distributor, restaurant, or fishmonger has gone through that kind of process," Stevens said.

He says his group is concerned that consumers may not realize that Chilean sea bass sold in other stores is not sustainably fished.

Culinary Superstar

The once-obscure Patagonia toothfish became a culinary superstar during the 1990s. Its flesh becomes oil-rich in frigid Antarctic waters and is hard to overcook.

However, the toothfish fell victim to its own popularity. Stocks crashed as a result of overfishing and widespread poaching.

The United States, by far the largest market for the fish, imports about half of the legally sanctioned global catch. Japan and China are the world's next largest consumers.

Five years ago, NET recruited chefs, restaurants, fish markets, and grocery stores across the country for their "Take a Pass on Chilean Sea Bass" campaign, which Stevens manages.

(Read "U.S. Chefs Join Campaign to Save Chilean Sea Bass" [May 22, 2002].)

More than a thousand chefs signed up and the campaign kept the fish off many menus.

But demand for the pricey fish has been rising in recent years, according to Stevens, who says fish from unsustainable or illegal fisheries is filling most of that demand.

An international body, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, regulates Patagonian toothfish fisheries. The group sets quotas, but fishing regulations are often contentious.

"There is a big difference between legal and sustainable," cautioned George Leonard of California's Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch Program.

Pirate Fishing

Regulators from several nations patrol and try to limit pirate fishing. But pirate fishers have simply moved to ever more remote Antarctic locales, where the illegal toothfish harvest continues.

The economic incentives are strong. Chilean sea bass retails for U.S. $23 to $28 a pound or more.

It's possible for fishers to haul in three million dollars' worth of the fish per season, Stevens says.

But not all pirates escape the net of law enforcement. Earlier this month, conservationists hailed the conviction of Spanish fishing kingpin, Antonio Vidal Pego.

He was caught importing over 50,000 pounds (22,680 kilograms) of pirated Chilean sea bass at a Miami, Florida, dock.

Pego accepted a plea agreement that included a U.S. $400,000 fine and four years of probation, during which he is barred from any Chilean sea bass fishing, legal or otherwise.

While such victories show that U.S. law enforcement is serious about curbing the illegal fish trade, federal agencies may not have sufficient resources.

"Customs officials have much more important things to look for than stolen fish," said Stevens, adding that perhaps only 2 percent of cargo containers entering U.S. ports are inspected.

"With the recent certification of the South Georgia fishery, the Chilean sea bass message is no longer a simple one," said George Leonard of the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch.

"But for most consumers who can't find the MSC label, the simple message would still be to continue to stay away."

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