Wednesday, April 24, 2002

Lifestyle

It isn't from Chile. It's not even sea bass. Suddenly, it's at the center of a growing environmental debate.
Trendy Chilean sea bass has been overfished, some say, to the point of prompting a boycott from environmentalists

Leslie Kelly
Staff writer

photo
Chicago Tribune
Cecilia Maldanado displays part of a 25-pound Chilean sea bass in Chicago. Environmentalists cite the declining size of catches as evidence of overfishing.

When it comes to Chilean sea bass, the waters are murky these days. Environmentalists say the species is overfished and in danger of becoming extinct if worldwide demands don't ease. A group called the National Environmental Trust has organized a campaign among restaurants around the country urging diners to "Take a Pass on Sea Bass."

Yet, on the other hand, seafood purveyors point out the fish is not endangered. Wholesalers who buy from reputable suppliers contend they're just feeding consumers hungry for this delicately flavored, white-fleshed fish.

"I had 10 pounds in here and it went flying out the door when Emeril Lagasse had it in a recipe on his show on the Food Network," said Vince Perry, owner of Williams Seafood in the Spokane Valley.

Parties on both sides of this controversy complain the other is serving up big helpings of misinformation. Even the fish's name is mired in confusion.

Chilean sea bass isn't sea bass at all. It's a slow-growing spe
cies from the waters near Antarctica called Patagonian toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides). In the mid-1990s, savvy marketers in Chile gave the toothfish a more appetizing name, and chefs everywhere soon fell in love with its buttery taste and texture.

When it was first commercially fished less than a decade ago, the average "sea bass" weighed between 100 and 200 pounds. As demand grew and prices soared, pirates entered the picture. Last year, the U.S. Customs seized more than 35 tons of illegal fish, according to a story in the April 15 issue of Time magazine.

Large illegal catches -- from unlicensed boats in areas that were designated off-limits due to overfishing -- are one of the primary reasons that the size of the fish caught these days has dropped to around 20 pounds. That's what has sent up red flags among conservation groups.

"Once you start catching really small fish, that signals a population in trouble," said Beth Clark, a scientist and director of the Antarctica Project, based in Washington D.C. "These are slow-growing fish. They don't even reproduce until they're 8 to 10 years old. If you start fishing the babies, they won't have the chance to reproduce. There won't be any fish for the future."

That's what led the National Environmental Trust to organize a boycott of the toothfish. More than 400 restaurants across the country have dropped Chilean sea bass from their menus. The efforts are concentrated in major metropolitan areas, including San Francisco, Philadelphia, New York and Los Angeles. (Check the Web site for a detailed list: www.environet.org.)

In Spokane, no restaurant has formally signed on board for the "Take a Pass on Sea Bass" campaign, but some chefs have decided to steer clear of this popular menu item until the controversy passes.

"It's a case of it getting too popular for its own good," said Karla Graves at Paprika. "It's like the monkfish, which was considered a garbage fish for years, and then it got trendy, and it's being overfished."

At Mizuna, customers frequently request Chilean sea bass, but it's now off the menu.

"It's my favorite fish," said chef Sylvia Wilson. "Even though our supplier can provide documentation that the fish we're getting was caught legally, it's not worth it."

Though the boycott, which was launched in February, has received considerable attention in the national media in the past few months, overfishing of Chilean sea bass is not a new concern.

Indeed, the fishing industry and the nation's seafood importers acknowledged overfishing of the popular fish was a potential problem in recent years. A 24-country commission was established to work toward measures to conserve the Chilean sea bass. This Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources sets catch limits and launched a system for documenting legal catches.

That's encouraging, but the measures don't go far enough, said Jerry Leape, director of the marine conservation program at the National Environmental Trust, the group organizing the "Take a Pass" campaign.

"We're working with legal fishermen in the area to help close down the ports everywhere to pirate catches," Leape said. "They recognize they might have to take a hit in the short run, but the fish will be around in the long run if we can slow the demand and eliminate the illegal fishers."

Seafood wholesalers point out that it's in their best interest to ensure that the fish population thrives.

"The health of our marine resources has always been important to us and will continue to be in the future," according to a prepared statement issued by OceanBeauty Seafoods, a Seattle-based company with purveyors in Spokane. "In the case of the Patagonian toothfish, its highly desirable qualities have created a global demand that has created a management challenge given its remote and vast range."

Ocean Beauty purchases its Chilean sea bass only from sources that provide documentation of legal catches.

Like a similar boycott effort of swordfish several years ago, it will take some time to determine whether the campaign has an impact on the demand.

"It certainly has increased awareness of the issue, and that's a good thing," said Leape.

In an effort to address consumer confusion, the U.S. Department of Commerce and the Department of State recently issued a fact sheet that answers frequently asked questions.

It advises consumers and restaurateurs to ask about the source of the Chilean sea bass they purchase. "Restaurateurs should insist that their fish brokers verify the source of their Chilean sea bass and buy the fish only if they are shown the proper documentation. ... Even if the seller does not know, the fact that the question was asked will send a message to distributors that consumers are aware and concerned about the problem of illegal fishing and imports," the document states.

In the meantime, Chilean sea bass will still be served at some restaurants simply because that's what customers want.

When it shows up as a special at The White House Grill in Post Falls it's an instant best seller.

"I don't know too much about the controversy," said owner/chef Raci Erdem. "I know that I never have any problem getting it. It would be different if sea bass goes to $30 a pound or if the government says you can't serve it."

For now, Erdem will take his cue from his customers.

"I'll wait and see what the public does," he said.

Leslie Kelly can be reached at (509) 459-5486 or by e-mail at lesliek@spokesman.com.


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