What is Chilean Sea Bass?
The story of Chilean Sea Bass would surprise many who have eaten its flaky white fillets in up market restaurants across the United States and Canada. To start with, Chilean Sea Bass is not the real name of the species. The actual name for this strange looking fish is Patagonian Toothfish. It is only in recent decades that this type of cod (not bass) has caught on in fancy restaurants across the US. One reason it has become so popular is because of the mild taste and melt in your mouth texture. A lot of people don’t like fish that tastes ‘fishy’ which seems a little rediculous to me but each to their own I guess. This ‘new’ fish was also very popular with chefs because that same mild taste means it can be made into pretty much unlimited different dishes with all kinds of spices.
The man behind this new name was Lee Lantz. The year was 1977. This was pure genius because the species was bycatch up until this stage and even if you could get it in a restaurant no one wants to eat a fish that has a name like ‘Patagonian Toothfish’. By changing the name to the now widely known ‘Chilean Sea Bass’ he was able to take a cheap and easily accessible fish species and turn it into an exotic dish which customers were more than willing to pay upwards of $50 a plate at restaurants. The success of the new name that brought this species on to the map has been so great that many of the fisheries associated with it are putting the sustainability of the species at risk. So if you partake in Patagonian Toothfish in the future I would recommend making sure the fish you are eating comes from a sustainable commercial fishery. I will speak more on the particulars of the sustainability of this species below.
Commercial Fisheries that Target the Species
Patagonian Toothfish are a deep sea species (caught at depths between 300-3500m) that is mostly targeted by commercial fishermen in the Southern Ocean and nearby areas of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Commercial fishing for the fish first developed off the coast of Chile and Argentina in the 1980’s. Nowadays most of the fishing takes place near the islands of South Georgia, Prince Edwards, Marion, Heard and Mcdonald. Most of these islands are very remote. For example, the islands of Heard and Mcdonald are over 2500 miles (4000km) from Perth on the west coast of Australia. There are also a few small time fisheries in Chile, Argentina and Uruguay that are mainly for subsistence and small local markets.
Sustainability of these Fisheries
The current sustainability of the Patagonian Toothfish is somewhat hard to measure. The pure remoteness of the fisheries involved make them very hard to patrol and there is a lot of area for illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing to be a major problem. In 2002, the US Commerce Department estimated that up to 2/3 of Patagonian Toothfish sales in the US were illegally caught fish. However, since then any imports into the US of the species has to be trackable to its fishery of origin which has cut down on the problem a fair bit. Since 2005, through the actions of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Resources (CCAMLR), patrol vessels from member nations and general awareness has cut down on IUU fishing for this species tremendously. According to the CCAMLR, IUU fishing for the Patagonian Toothfish has been cut from 32,000 tons in 1997 to 1,600 tons in 2010. To put this in context, the total allowable catch worldwide for the 2014/15 season was 25,600 tons. In other words, the new efforts have made a tremendous difference to the sustainability of the species.
There has been such a push by the industry in recent years that 60% of the Patagonian Toothfish fish caught around the world come from Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certified sustainable fisheries.