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U.S. Chefs Join Campaign to Save Chilean Sea Bass

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
May 22, 2002
 
Most Americans have never heard of the Patagonian Toothfish. But many
have enjoyed its moist, white flesh at upscale seafood restaurants
across the nation. The fish is commonly known in the United States by a
name devised to increase its marketability—Chilean sea bass.



Ten years ago, Chilean sea bass was virtually unknown in the United States, but since then the fish has become a staple on many upscale menus. Increasingly dire warnings suggest that the trendy toothfish has become too popular for its own good. Environmentalists warn that unless demand is reduced, the fish may face commercial extinction in as little as five years.

Steadily declining annual catches have signaled trouble, and led environmental groups to partner with some of the chefs who first popularized the dish in a campaign to reduce demand for the toothfish. The goal of the "Take a Pass on Chilean Sea Bass" campaign is to encourage chefs to remove the beleaguered fish from their menus until populations begin to recover from widespread and dangerous overfishing, most of which is done by illegal "pirate" fishing boats.

Chefs Agree to Stop Serving Toothfish

So far, more than 700 chefs nationwide have agreed to give the prehistoric-looking fish a break.

"Chefs are the opinion leaders of the food world," said Andrea Kavanagh, campaign manager for the National Environmental Trust (NET), which is spearheading the campaign. "We began with six cities, premier U.S. dining markets, and asked chefs to agree to stop serving the fish until populations began to recover. Now chefs in other cities are coming to us to sign up, and taking Chilean sea bass of their menus."

Restaurant sales account for some 70 percent of the Chilean sea bass consumed in the United States. Kavanagh also hopes, however, to involve consumers in the program and encourage them not to purchase the fish at their local markets.

By drastically reducing demand for the fish, the campaign hopes to curb the illegal fishing that threatens the survival of the species.

One chef who signed on to the campaign is Cesare Casella, of the acclaimed Tuscan restaurant Beppe in New York City's Flatiron district. "The chefs were responsible for creating a trend," said Casella, "but if we can stop the use of Chilean sea bass the demand will drop for the illegal fish.

"I started to use Chilean sea bass in 1992 or 1993 and it was a great fish, a beautiful fish," he continued. "In the last few years they have been getting smaller and smaller, while the quality is getting worse. Now, most of the Chilean sea bass on the market is illegal, and it has been frozen. I agree 100 percent with the campaign to improve the stocks of this fish for the future."

"Pirates" Fish With No Regulation

Regulation of the Chilean sea bass fishery is challenging because the fish are caught in international waters by boats from many nations. International agreements to protect the fish are difficult to negotiate and very tough to enforce.

The major problem with the Chilean sea bass fishery, though, is illegal fishing. Boats taking more than the legal catch limit account for some 80 percent of the overall catch.

"The catch limits are based on the assumption that no illegal fishing is going on, but the illegal catch is perhaps four times the legal limit," said Kavanagh. "At this rate we feel that the fish could be commercially extinct in five years."

The fish can live to be more than 50 years old, and grow to lengths exceeding 6 feet (1.8 meters), but fishing pressure means they likely will not have a chance to do either. According to NET statistics, boats operating off Africa's Cape Horn in 1996 reported an average "catch-per-hook"—the total weight of all Chilean sea bass caught divided by the number of hooks on the line—of roughly 1.4 kilograms (3 pounds). By 1998, overfishing had brought the catch-per-hook to less than 0.1 kilograms (one-third of a pound).

As the fish become smaller and more scarce, their price continues to climb. Consequently, the level of illegal fishing continues to rise as pirates seek the cash that comes with such a lucrative catch.

Compounding the problem of dwindling population is the fish's slow reproductive rate. Not a bass at all, the Patagonian Toothfish, Dissostichus eleginoides, is actually a member of a family of deepwater fish specially adapted to the extreme cold of remote Antarctic waters. The cold environment means that the fish are slow growing. Females may take ten years to reach sexual maturity, which means that depleted stocks may take a long time to recover.

Is a Boycott the Answer?

While everyone seems to agree that conservation of Chilean sea bass is critically important, the "Take a Pass" campaign does have its detractors.

"We certainly share the objective of conserving Chilean sea bass, but we think that the strategy is really misguided," said Richard Gutting, Jr., president of the National Fisheries Institute, a fish and seafood trade association.

"The fishery is under international management by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources," Gutting said. "There is a tight conservation program, administered in the United States by the National Marine Fisheries Service that requires documentation explaining the 'whos,' 'whats,' 'wheres,' and 'hows' of every Chilean sea bass caught by U.S. fishermen.

"The people importing and selling Chilean sea bass here in the U.S. have to provide documentation that their product has been legally caught, so the product for sale here has been monitored and controlled according to the best conservation practices."

Environmentalists maintain that huge quantities of illegally caught fish are regularly sold in the United States because the regulations are easily circumvented.

"Until we have a reliable system to track legal versus illegal catches of Chilean sea bass, we have to make it unprofitable for the pirates to continue poaching and ask consumers to "Take a Pass on Chilean Sea Bass," Kavanagh said.

Gutting believes that the boycott campaign will hurt only legitimate fishermen.

"What good is a U.S. boycott of legally caught fish going to do about the real problem, which is illegal fishermen selling their catch to other countries? It won't do any good," he said. "Some well-meaning folks are misguided here and consumers and chefs are being misled into thinking that they are doing something to help the problem. What we need to do is to send a message to governments that illegal fishing should not be tolerated. This is just a 'feel good' strategy that's directing people away from the real work that needs to be done."

Whether legally or illegally caught, the fast growing campaign seems to be reducing the demand for the heavily fished Chilean sea bass. Already, diners will notice its absence on many of their favorite menus. Not to worry, says Chef Casella, there are plenty of delicious alternatives including striped bass, halibut, and orata.

"It's the chef that makes this fish," Casella said. "Chilean sea bass is fantastic, but it's possible to make many other great dishes."

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