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

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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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