Fatal attraction: Humanity’s love affair with fish like the Chilean sea bass

Photo of a Patagonian toothfish from Wikimedia Commons

Recently I was snared — or hooked, snagged, or netted (pick your favorite fishing pun) — by a book that shows  humanity's enormous capacity to affect ocean life. We can nearly wipe out an entire species in just a few decades thanks to new technologies and taste trends.

Take the Chilean sea bass, Dissostichus eleginoides, a.k.a. the Patagonian toothfish. Until the 1990s, it was more or less unknown to most of the world. By 2002, stocks had been depleted so much that the National Environmental Trust launched a preservation campaign called "Take a Pass on Chilean Sea Bass" and the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch eventually added it to its "avoid" list.

This is part of the story told in "Hooked: Pirates, Poaching, and the Perfect Fish" by G. Bruce Knecht. A historic chase of a fishing vessel by Australian authorities across thousands of miles of the Southern Ocean provides narrative drive for the history of the Chilean sea bass and how modern fishing operates. Knecht intersperses suspenseful chapters about the chase with background from the fish's "discovery" in Chile and its introduction to wholesalers and restaurateurs in the U.S., weaving an engrossing tale that only lets up after the ship is captured and some of the officers and crew go on trial in Australia.

Before 1977, the fish was hardly known outside of the South American coast, and wasn't even called the "Chilean sea bass." Back then, fishermen called it bacalao de profudid (cod of the deep), and it was generally disliked in Chile because of its oily flesh. Lee Lantz, an American fish wholesaler working in Chile, and Eduardo Neef, his Chilean business associate, were the first to see the commercial potential of the fish. Having years of experience with fish buyers, Lantz knew that it needed a better name, and after much deliberation, he chose "Chilean sea bass" because its white flesh and triangular tail resembled other sea bass.

Initially, the fish was used as part of the mixture in frozen fish sticks, but eventually it was embraced by top chefs for its succulent, moist flesh and mild flavor. In 1990, it made its first appearance in a white tablecloth restaurant, at the Four Seasons Restaurant in NYC, where it was called "Corvina bass" (even though both words refer to other species of fish).  By the late 1990s, Chilean sea bass was the foundation of the signature dishes of many restaurants, including Rick Moonen's Oceana in New York City. Increasing demand, of course, drove more fishermen to seek the fish, first decimating the fisheries off the coast of Chile and then angling for the Southern Ocean. In 2002, the National Environmental Trust launched its "Take a Pass on Chilean Sea Bass" campaign. Hundreds of chefs from around the U.S. joined the campaign, pledging to remove the fish from their menus until the population had recovered. As National Geographic News reported, chefs have a major influence on demand for the fish in the U.S.: restaurants account almost three-quarters of the sales of the fish.

photo-of-antarctic-toothfish-from-wikimedia-commonsThe Chilean sea bass's rapid descent from unknown to overfished is a result of its nature and our technology. The Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch fact sheet about the fish says that they are slow-growing and don't breed until an advanced age. And according to "Hooked," these fish spend most of their lives in a relatively small region, unlike, say, bluefin tuna, which swim thousands of miles each year. Once a fishing boat finds a good spot, it's all over for that sea bass community.

Our technology is the other main factor in the fish's near demise. In recent decades, fishing vessels have been transformed into floating factories, with on-board processing facilities that let the ships stay out for months yet maintain high product quality. On factory ships, they remove the head and tail, scrape out the guts, and flash-freeze the rest before storing them in the hold (the ship in "Hooked" could hold 300 tons of fish) . Sea-floor-mapping technology helps fishers identify the most promising spots, while GPS guides them reliably back to their best fishing spots again and again.

The basic fishing technology is simple — lots and lots of hooks — but requires powerful engines and a large vessel to be fully implemented. After finding a promising location, they set out a few "short longlines" at various depths and in various locations (in this case, short is less than a mile in length). A day later, they pick up the lines and evaluate the catch. If they're in a good spot, the real longlines are dropped — each one supports 200 branch lines, each of which holds 76 hooks baited with a sardine. That's 15,200 hooks. Typically two or three lines are set at one time and left in place for up to three days.

Diplomatic and legal remedies are thus far proving to be ineffective in protecting fisheries in the face of this technological onslaught. Although treaties are in place to protect some of the waters around Antarctica, not all nations are signatories. At one point in the book, a fisherman says that he could easily change registration of his ship to a non-signing nation to gain access to the Antarctic continental shelf.  In addition, "pirate" fishing vessels are numerous and hard to track. And, of course, there is the question of legal jurisdiction in international waters. Finally, when fish are caught illegally — in protected zones, without the proper permits, or in other nations' territorial waters — it is fairly easy to launder them through various ports and distribution networks to hide the origin of the fish or which vessel caught them.

Although these problems look daunting, the regular stream of reports about the decline of the ocean's productivity means that nations need to work together to find solutions. Some potential solutions include large reserves where fishing is prohibited to allow stocks to recover, better enforcement of fishing regulations, and a reduction in subsidies for the fishing industry.

Learn more: For a taste of the story on-line, "Hooked" author Knecht wrote a short article for the New York Times Magazine about the chase before the complete book was published. Editor's Note: And Mark Powell's blog, Blogfish, does a terrific job of covering the world of sustainable (and un-) seafood.


Top photo: Chilean Sea Bass (Dissostichus eleginoides, a.k.a. Patagonian toothfish) from Wikimedia Commons, derived from the U.S. FDA's Regulatory Fish Encyclopedia. Bottom photo: Antarctic toothfish (Dissostichus mawsoni, a close relative of Dissostichus eleginoides) from Wikimedia Commons.

One Responseto “Fatal attraction: Humanity’s love affair with fish like the Chilean sea bass”

  1. I loved Hooked too, and was talking about it at lunch this past Tuesday with Humberto Kam of the Monterey Bay Aquarium.  It so happens that the day you posted this we both presented at South By South West on a panel called Sustainable Food 2.o.  He spoke about the new Seafood Watch iPhone app.  Keeing tabs on tech for sustainable food here: http://www.savefood.wikispaces.com

    Thanks for the great recap of this book, I read it September 2007 and the details were slipping.  Appreciate it!