A fish story: Navigating seafood choices
Chefs have organized a boycott of Chilean sea bass, which is being depleted. Campaigns to protect fish aren't new, but the real question is: Do they make a difference?
Imagine you're at a restaurant. You study the menu. Nothing speaks to you. Then the waiter comes along, eager to announce the specials. He gushes about the filet mignon and the rack of lamb, but the roasted Chilean sea bass with caramelized onions gets his most hearty endorsement. "You've never had Chilean sea bass?" he asks. "You've got to try it! It's a flaky, white fish that is exceptionally tender and moist. People love it."Skip to next paragraph
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Sound irresistible? Don't take the bait, say conservationists, environmentalists, and a growing number of American chefs. They are campaigning against consumption of Chilean sea bass almost as energetically as President Bush campaigned for brother Jeb before last week's election.
This South American specialty has been all the rage for about the past six years (and especially from 1999 until 2001, when consumption doubled). Unfortunately, its popularity has also been its downfall. Pirate fishing fleets often catch about 10 times as much as the legal limits.
To save the fish, campaigns such as "Take a Pass on Chilean Seabass," spearheaded by the National Environmental Trust (NET), have become increasingly common. Many factors are at play: a world population that continues to swell, stepped-up publicity about the health benefits of seafood, and consumers who are more conscious of food sources and savvier about making ecologically friendly choices.
You might remember all the talk about dolphin-safe tuna. Or Chesapeake Bay rockfish. And more recently, the widespread campaign to "Give Swordfish a Break." These fish have recovered, more or less.
Marine biologist Ellen Pikitch thinks this grass-roots action to protect Chilean sea bass is just like the one that helped save the swordfish. "That campaign was instrumental in getting international agreement on a rebuilding plan for North Atlantic swordfish," she says, "an agreement that is now showing big dividends."
But still, not everyone is convinced that these campaigns - or boycotts -have a lasting impact on fish populations.
"They are often misguided," says Richard Gutting Jr., president of the National Fisheries Institute. He supports the conservation of Chilean sea bass and eliminating illegal practices, but, he notes, none of the illegally caught fish is coming into the US market because of strict monitoring of each vessel and its catch.
"This boycott is diverting attention away from the real problem," he says. "Consumers and chefs should channel their energy into urging the government to crack down on the black market in other nations."
Others point out that boycotts can be confusing for consumers, and sometimes hurt fishermen. "I'm not a boycott signer," says Chris Douglass, chef and co-owner of Icarus restaurant in Boston. "They tend to be oversimplistic, focusing on only one fish. I've also seen how boycotts can turn around and bite you in the back. They bring lots of attention to an issue, which can be good. But with swordfish," he explains, "many East Coast fishermen were hurt by it even though they were practicing good fishery management, sticking to quotas as well as size and weight limits."
Paul Parker, a fishermen for five years, has recently become executive director of the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fisherman's Association. He believes that these boycotts are now a "necessary fact of life." But he knows firsthand about the confusion they can cause. "People hear about the Chilean sea bass campaign and assume there's something wrong with eating striped bass," he says. "I am constantly having to clarify the difference between them, which is vast."
For boycotts to be most effective, Mr. Parker says, they need to take place on a more local level, closer to home. He explains that the issues regarding a particular fish on one coast may not apply to that same species on the other coast.