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The Truth about Toothfish

As if ordering a meal isn't tough enough, a federal researcher now says Chilean sea bass overfishing claims are exaggerated.

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To eat or not to eat? That is the question whenever Chilean sea bass appears on the menu of some swank East Bay bistro. Alas, as Hamlet discovered, some questions defy simple answers.

Even the fish's name is illusory, crafted as a cunning sales gimmick. Those buttery white fillets are largely Patagonian toothfish, Dissostichus eleginoides. The unsightly creature is native to the deep southern hemisphere. It lives up to one hundred years, grows to six feet and two hundred pounds, possesses needlelike teeth and large black eyes, and has been the source of great culinary controversy over the past decade. Conservation groups say the toothfish is in dire straits due to overfishing and will be commercially extinct if not protected soon. Seafood restaurateurs and fishmongers, meanwhile, still actively promote Chilean sea bass to consumers. "Both sides are screaming — the environmentalists and the fish marketers," says Christopher Jones, a researcher with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which regulates imports of the fish. "But the truth about the toothfish lies somewhere in between."

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the toothfish saga is its timeline: Scientists first described the species in 1896, yet it remained secret from most of the world until the early 1970s, estranged from bustling human society by up to seven thousand vertical feet of water. Toothfish, however, can survive in shallower waters — sometimes as shallow as 1,600 feet — which is approximately where Chilean fishermen first began hooking these animals. The fishermen were pursuing congria, or conger eels, but as that popular menu item thinned out over the shallower reefs, their human pursuers tried looking for them at greater depths, and eventually their baited hooks entered the realm of the fearsome dark-eyed delicacy.

Fishermen named the animal for its fantastic choppers, and the toothfish became a staple catch onboard long-line fishing vessels. In 1977, Southern California traveling fish marketer Lee Lantz saw one splayed out on a dock in the port of Valparaiso, Chile. The exciting appearance of the strange fish inspired him to purchase a piece, which he cooked, ate, and pondered. Its fatty, snow-white flesh tasted great, and he quickly made arrangements with Chilean fishermen to start exporting this new product to the northern half of the globe.

But first, Lantz decided, it needed a catchier name. While any old whitemeat fish can be sold as "cod" or "snapper," Lantz thought this profoundly buttery flesh deserved its own denomination. He soon hit upon "Chilean sea bass" — a label lovely to the ear yet generic enough to maintain the ugly creature's anonymity — and the fish promptly ascended to the ranks of culinary stardom. According to the State Department, the United States currently imports about ten thousand tons of toothfish a year, which it estimates at 15 to 20 percent of the worldwide catch.

In some regions of the southern hemisphere, though, populations may be declining significantly. Opinions and agendas among the experts vary — after all, these "experts" include scientists, politicians, and businessmen — but nearly all agree that illegal fishing in certain areas represents a bona fide threat to parts of the world's toothfish stock. According to the NOAA's Jones, most regions are well managed by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, a US-led cooperative of 24 nations that enforces a "total allowable catch," but others face harvest rates that may exceed the species' capacity to stay viable. Although most fishing vessels abide by the commission's guidelines, Jones says, several zones in the southern Indian Ocean are plagued by rampant toothfish poaching, undocumented hauls that some investigators believe may effectively double the total allowable catch. The Monterey Bay Aquarium, which maintains seafood ratings for consumers, labels Chilean sea bass as one to avoid. It cites heavy poaching and destruction to sea-floor habitats from long-line fishing and nets that drag along the bottom.

What to do, what to do? For conservationists, the obvious solution is to persuade fish retailers and consumers to boycott Chilean sea bass. "It's almost impossible to distinguish legally caught toothfish from illegal toothfish once it's traveled as far as the United States border," says Mark Stevens of the National Environmental Trust. "And even if all US Chilean sea bass is caught legally, should we be eating it at all?"

Stevens is the manager of the trust's "Take a Pass on Chilean Sea Bass" campaign, which the environmental nonprofit launched in 2001. Nearly one thousand chefs and vendors nationwide signed on, and thereby pledged to stop serving or selling toothfish. Many more have joined the boycott since then, but consumer demand compels others in the business to continue their trade.

Andronico's Market is one such establishment. The upscale supermarket carries Chilean sea bass throughout the Bay Area despite the urgings of Stevens' campaign. The market sells it frozen and thawed — but never fresh. In fact, fresh, unfrozen toothfish can scarcely be found anywhere in the northern hemisphere, yet prices are sky-high compared to other finfish — Andronico's was recently charging $24.99 per pound. Store representatives declined to comment.

The popular restaurant chain Trader Vic's also serves Chilean sea bass, and president Hans Richter confidently stands by its decision to keep toothfish on the menu. "We basically follow the fishery scientists' advice," he says. "We signed on to the campaign at first, but a notice came up saying it wasn't necessary, so we started serving it again. Everyone else was doing it, so we did, too."

Oliveto in Oakland joined the "Take a Pass" campaign in 2001 — then again, Oliveto had never welcomed the fish into its kitchen in the first place. "Back in the early '90s when the Chilean sea bass got really hot, we were already pretty aware of the issues surrounding it," chef Paul Canales says. "Besides, it seems silly to ship fish halfway across the world when there are better fish available locally."

By some estimates, the amount of illegally harvested toothfish is five times that of the legally caught product — the Monterey Aquarium claims ten, but offers no source for the information. Jones questions the validity of such numbers and generally downplays the urgency of the situation. For instance, he cites the region surrounding South Georgia Island. This swath of water runs about four hundred by seven hundred miles and supports an estimated 53,000 tons of adult toothfish — a healthy population. The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources' granted the area a total allowable catch of 3,556 tons for the current season.

"The South Georgia sector is certainly in good shape," Jones says. "Now, Kerguelen has been hit hard by an illegal fishery, as have some of the other Indian Ocean regions, but the extinction predictions for the toothfish that we often hear are not based on science; they're based on agendas. The toothfish could go extinct given various levels of illegal fishing, but those levels have not come to pass."

He insists that most toothfish populations are stable and that illegal fishing has largely been eliminated, although he concedes that a pirate vessel was recently spotted in an otherwise well-managed region of the Ross Sea: "We just hope that doesn't become a problem."

Regardless, Stevens and the National Environmental Trust urge diners to opt instead for local, less controversial fishes. "We're still encouraging chefs and consumers to stop eating Chilean sea bass until we can figure out this fishery — and we do this not because we want to ban it forever, but because we want Chilean sea bass to be available on menus in the future," he says.

Even some who sell toothfish disapprove of the industry. "I think it's a poor idea to maintain the trade in this product," says Tom Worthington of Monterey Fish in San Francisco. The wholesale retailer still sells the occasional toothfish, but he hopes to eventually phase it out. "I'd rather have my clients start to buy other fish that are more suitable, but by staying in the game slightly I can keep some leverage in changing the market and the opinions of the public," he says. "You can't do much by shouting from the sidelines. Basically, everything I do is to discourage the public from using Chilean sea bass, but it takes time to turn a big ship around — especially one as big as the Chilean sea bass market."

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