Monday, April 9, 2007

Is This Fish Really for You?

When I was in the catering business, the Patagonian toothfish, otherwise known as the Chilean sea bass, was a favorite entree for weddings and other large seated dinners. You could leave that fish in a heated proofing box endlessly, it seemed, and it would never go bad. The toasts could go on and on. The groom could have his cold feet. The bride's mother could faint away. All that, and the Chilean sea bass would still perform like a champ, arriving on the plate as fresh as a daisy. What professional cook wouldn't love a fish like that?

In 2001, Bon Appetit magazine named Chilean sea bass "dish of the year."

In fact, the Patagonian toothfish is neither from Chile nor a bass.

Chefs started clueing in to the concerns of environmentalists and conservationists that this fish--never popular, really, until about 20 years ago, when other fish stocks began to wane--was being exploited almost to extinction. Scientists from the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) in 2002 warned that current levels of trawling could lead to a total collapse of the toothfish population within 10 years.

Chefs took up the enviro banner. They organized. No more Chilean sea bass, they said. They called their mini-movement "Take a Pass on Chilean sea bass."

You didn't see much Chilean sea bass after that. So I was surprised a few months ago when I noticed the toothfish re-appear as regular fare at the seafood counter at my local Whole Foods. And only $22.99 a pound!

Now you are starting to see Chilean sea bass on menus again. But hold on a minute--what has changed so much in the last few years to make the toothfish a good choice again? Has there been a sudden rebound in the toothfish population?

The Patagonian toothfish and its cousin to the south, the Antarctic toothfish, are both slow-growing, low fertility species that can live several decades. Their preferred habitat is in the greater depths of the frigid southern oceans. They are a mildly tasty sea creature, with thick, snow-white flesh that is hard to overcook and loves a nice sauce or spice rub. And of course they have long, sharp teeth.

Seventeen countries vie for the toothfish haul. But now just one small fishery, in the waters of South Georgia, a remote island off Argentina in the South Atalantic, has been certified as "sustainable" and it is this fishery that is supplying Whole Foods. But there's a twist: The certifying body, the British non-profit Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), only issued its seal of approval two years ago over the objections of several environmental groups, and after mandating several conditions on the toothfish industry.

According to Charles Clover in his book about the world's embattled fisheries, End of the Line, at least half of the toothfish harvest is illegal, and the figure may actually be more like 80 percent. Poaching is so rampant the fish population is considered endangered. But the rewards are tremendous. A captain can pay for his entire boat with one good haul.

Clover quotes one Australian fishing executive as saying that "the odds are better than people smuggling or drug running." Rules against overfishing are particularly difficult to enforce in the open sea and in the virtual no-man's land around Antartica where the toothfish are most at home.

The group responsible for protecting the toothfish in Antarctic waters, the CCAMLR, is a scientific body, not a police operation. Greenpeace claims that most of the pirating of toothfish is carried out by ships registered to nations belonging to CCAMLR.

Methods used to fish for Chilean sea bass also result in the deaths of other endangered species, such as the albatross. For these reasons, and because of the mercury content in some toothfish, the Monterey Bay Aquariam Seafood Watch Program continues to place Chilean sea bass on its list of fish to avoid.

Whole Foods stopped selling Patagonian toothfish in 1999 because the species "was being overfished at an alarming rate," according to the grocer's web site. Chilean sea bass has been reintroduced because of the Marine Stewardship Council's certification of the South Georgia fishery, and its vetting of the Whole Foods product.

Still, environmentalists fear that labeling the fish "sustainable" at Whole Foods sends a mixed message because the South Georgia product represents only 10 percent of the Chilean sea bass catch.

"We think it confuses the consumer," Mark Stevens, of the National Environmental Trust, was quoted as saying when the certification was granted. "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."

The National Environmental Trust, a stakeholder in the Marine Stewardship Council, argues that the difficulty of verifying chain of custody of fish caught far out at sea is just one of many reasons the South Georgia certification should not have been issued.

"This fishery should never have even been considered for certification," said Gerald Leape, the trust's vice president for marine conservation. "Chain of custody alone is a potential Achilles heel preventing the consumer from ever really knowing if the MSC labeled fish is truly legally caught."

Those concerns are not enough to disuade Whole Food."While poaching remains a serious threat to Chilean sea bass in other areas, this remote fishery has proven itself to be a responsible one dedicated to sustainable practices as documented by the MSC," according to the Whole Foods website.

What's a shopper to do?

While I applaud the governement of South Georgia for taking tough measures against illegal fishing of the toothfish in its own waters, I think that's a pretty slender reed on which to hang the fate of a noble sea creature in danger of being wiped out.

I will continue to take a pass on Chilean sea bass. I hope you do, too.

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