Save the Patagonian Toothfish!

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 2/22/2007 05:19:00 PM
Here's a perfectly depressing tale of greed, overfishing, piracy, and near-extinction. You may have seen the "Chilean Sea Bass" on the menu at a local eatery. It turns out that this exotic-sounding fish has a far more prosaic name: it's properly called the "Patagonian Toothfish." Given its popularity among diners, this fish is swimming (not running) for its life. First, here's a backgrounder on the fate of the Patagonian Toothfish:
For years, fisheries tried unsuccessfully to market the Patagonian Toothfish, but the name was highly unappetizing to the public. It seemed as though the toothfish was doomed to quick condemnation in the United States, as consumers relied upon the safe familiarity with other fish to base their purchasing decisions on, unwilling to experiment with this new contender.

A lot has changed in ten years. The Patagonian Toothfish, once plentiful in southern oceans, now suffers immensely from overfishing, and is coming dangerously close to commercial extinction. Its popularity has increased tenfold, and can easily be found on many menus, and is purchased extensively at supermarkets and fisheries.

So how did it get so popular? Some quick thinkers were of the opinion that a more attractive name might hold considerable sway over the masses, and promptly began marketing the Patagonian Toothfish under its new and improved moniker, Chilean Sea Bass.

It was nearly an overnight success. The pairing of the subtle exoticism of Chile and familiar characteristic of bass propelled the fish into the limelight. The supple white meat suddenly exhibited new clarity under this new label, and lo and behold, it also tasted good. The Chilean Sea Bass was a rising, shining star in the seafood world. It's celebrity status was the talk of the culinary town. But, unfortunately, no one could predict that there was a dark side to its sudden stardom.
Next up are more alarming factoids:
In fact, there are so many vessels fishing the Southern Ocean that it is estimated that for every pound of legally caught Patagonia toothfish, an estimated five pounds are hooked illegally. And a dramatic increase in the wholesale price of the fish has pushed poachers to redouble their efforts on a relative of the Patagonia toothfish, the Antarctic toothfish. Now these stocks are believed to have begun to diminish...

The impact of overfishing to the fish stocks is already clear: In 1996, vessels operating off Africa’s Cape Horn 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 (1/3 pound).

Hopefully, this post will make some diners think twice before dining on the Chilean Sea Bass. Until its stocks are replenished, it should be off the menu.