End Of The Line

Chilean sea bass has become the catch of the day, but some chefs are worried about the survival of the species.

July 10, 2002|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Just when we've fallen in love with Chilean sea bass, a group of chefs has risen to warn us we could love it to death.

Only a few years ago, this was a fish living in obscurity in deep, cold ocean waters off South America and with the unappetizing name of Patagonian (or Antarctic) toothfish. But like an aspiring Hollywood starlet, its name was changed and it became a hit. No one cared that Chilean sea bass wasn't really a bass and didn't always come from Chile. With its white, moist flesh, it took leading roles in top American restaurants.

Now, the popularity of this fish threatens to become its downfall. For the last two years, the United States and other countries concerned about overfishing and exploitation of this species have regulated the harvest of Chilean sea bass and confiscated illegal catches -- when they could.

FOR THE RECORD - A story on Chilean sea bass in last weeks Taste section gave an incomplete representation of Blue Agave owner Michael Marx's comments. Marx said that he believes the continuing federal regulation and enforcement rather than a boycott will be the most effective way to ensure against illegal fishing of this species.
Also, a recipe provided by Marx for plantain-encrusted sea bass contained a typographical error. The proper amount of sea bass for the recipe is 1 pounds.
The Sun regrets the error.

But environmental advocates warn that the regulation isn't enough, that the documentation

that U.S. agencies require can be forged easily, and that unless diners "take a pass on Chilean sea bass," as the campaign slogan goes, the species will die off.

Some 500 American chefs have pledged not to serve or sell the fish until its population stabilizes. Their campaign is coordinated by the nonprofit National Environmental Trust and supported by other environmental groups.

One of those chefs is Nora Pouillon, owner of two popular Washington, D.C., restaurants -- Nora and Asia Nora. She was the spokeswoman behind a campaign two years ago to boycott North Atlantic swordfish for the same reasons she's now concerned about Chilean sea bass.

"You want them to be able to reproduce a couple of years before you catch them," Pouillon says of the fish.

She stopped serving swordfish when the steaks became smaller and smaller. It didn't take much to put two and two together, she said, and figure out the swordfish weren't getting a chance to live to adulthood.

While some chefs questioned whether such boycotts of fish make a difference, Pouillon is convinced they do.

"Seventy percent of the sales [of Chilean sea bass] in the United States are to restaurants," Pouillon says.

While the regulation of swordfish harvesting has improved because of the boycott, she says, she still does not serve the fish, and would like to see more regulation of the size of fish caught.

Whether Chilean sea bass or swordfish, she says, "I think you can live without it."

Chilean sea bass is not classified as endangered, but large, unreported catches from illegal fishing make it difficult to manage the population, according to a fact sheet put out by the U.S. departments of Commerce and State. Legal fishing goes on in defined management areas, but the amount of fish caught illegally may be twice that caught legally.

And then, there's the concern about catching fish that are too small and too young, says Andrea Kavanagh, a spokeswoman for the National Environmental Trust, based in Washington.

The toothfish/Chilean sea bass needs to be about 8 years old before it can reproduce, Kavanagh says, but some illegally caught fish are younger and smaller than that.

"People ask, `Can you farm-raise it like other sea bass?'" Kavanagh says. "No, because first of all, it's not a sea bass, and second, it lives in very cold, deep water."

Now, there are some chefs, restaurant diners and home cooks who need to hear no more than that to take a pass on Chilean sea bass.

Why risk overfishing this species, they might say, when there are plenty of other fish in the ocean?

Well, for one thing, there aren't plenty of fish with such rich flesh. Pouillon and others recommend halibut, but you have to be careful not to overcook it. Chilean sea bass is not as vulnerable to that common mistake.

"We have a tendency to overcook the majority of seafood," says Dana Spatafore, general manager of Graul's Markets. Chilean sea bass has a high oil content that keeps it from succumbing to the dryness that plagues most overcooked fish. That, and the mild, sweet flavor, keeps the fish popular in his stores despite the price of $16.99 per pound, he says.

At Tapas Teatro in Baltimore, the Chilean sea bass goes into the paella, or is grilled and served with spinach. Chef Antonio Baines says the restaurant buys its seafood from a reputable supplier who takes "every precaution" to follow the law. He has no plans to stop serving Chilean sea bass.

And Michael Marx, owner of Blue Agave in Federal Hill, plans to continue to serve his signature dish of plantain-encrusted Chilean sea bass served with mango-habanero sauce.

Sea bass not only doesn't taste "fishy," its texture is almost meaty, he says. Marx says he has occasionally had shipments that he felt were subpar, when fisheries were "grabbing anything that was out there" to meet the demand. He sent those shipments back, he says. And he has had to face price increases of $3 per pound, without changing the price on the menu.

But he says he's not convinced the species is in danger or that chefs can make much difference if it is.

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