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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?

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The swordfish boycott of 1998 to 2000,for example, was intended to help preserve the Atlantic stocks fished with longlines. (These are set just below the water's surface, stretch for miles, have hundreds of hooks, and take in a lot of "bycatch" - nontargeted fish, sea turtles, and seabirds.) But those who caught Pacific swordfish and used harpoons to catch swordfish also lost business.

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While Nora Pouillon, chef/owner of two acclaimed restaurants in Washington, is sympathetic about the fallout of boycotts for fishermen, she insists that they are effective. History proves this, she says. The first moratorium that the Austrian-born chef is aware of took place 20 years ago. "The rockfish from Chesapeake Bay was at first plentiful," she explains, "then it was completely decimated from overfishing." When a well-publicized campaign to stop buying rockfish started, it was thought that the fish stocks would need about 10 years to recover. But the rockfish population recuperated in only five years.

Another example, says Ms. Pouillon, is swordfish, which was severely depleted until after the "Give Swordfish a Break" campaign. She was the first chef to sign on to the campaign. Though swordfish has not completely come back, it's at 94 percent of levels considered healthy, according to conservation organizations. "I hope Chilean sea bass will do as well," she says.

When she first took swordfish off the menu at Restaurant Nora, where she serves an average of 200 diners each night, Pouillon was inundated with angry letters and phone calls from fishermen.

"I told them to be patient, that supply would return, and then they could go back to their trade." Without the moratorium, she adds, swordfish might have become extinct, and their livelihood would be wiped out forever.

What's a consumer to do?

All the controversy about seafood campaigns and their effectiveness can make one's head swim with conflicting opinions. And dipping into the facts via charts or lists, such as those published online by the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Audubon Society of America, could make things even blurrier. Within every species, each type of fish has its own issues.

Shrimp, for instance, comes in 20 varieties, and it can be partially or not at all sustainable, depending on whether it is wild or farmed, domestic or imported.

Among other issues: Some fish are being caught at unsustainable levels. Others are caught by methods that haul in a lot of bycatch, and still others are farmed in ways that some consider problematic. (For specifics, see the box of websites on page 19.)

Michael Princhinello, a New Yorker who cooks seafood three or four times each week, recommends reading up on all the issues and asking lots of questions. He starts with his favorite fishmonger, who, he says, is always well-informed. He might ask him: Where is this fish from? Is it farmed or wild? And how was it caught?

Mr. Princhinello is glad that restaurant chefs are taking a stand against cooking fish that are dwindling in numbers, but he's not such a stickler as to steer clear of those whodo. "Lots of times they just don't know better," he says.

But cooking teacher Karen Adler takes a bolder approach. Just the other day, when Ms. Adler noticed Chilean sea bass on the menu of a popular Kansas City restaurant, she said to the waiter: "I'm curious why the chef is offering Chilean sea bass despite the national campaign." She was told that the chef had wanted to take it off his menu, but his customers balked - even after he told them about its precarious future.

Many of Adler's students enroll in her classes because they're intimidated by the idea of cooking seafood.

Because so many consumers eat fish only at restaurants, rather than cooking it at home, Andrea Kavanagh of the National Environmental Trust believes chefs can have tremendous influence. "They are the opinion leaders of the food world," she says.

Today's most talked-about campaign

Some might say that the Chilean sea bass campaign has already had an impact.In fact, demand has dropped by 40 percent in the past year,says Sam Wong, general manager of American Fish and Seafood Co., a major distributor of fish in the US. But, he adds, that decline could be due to steeper prices. In March , his business sold Chilean sea bass for $7 per pound. Now it's $10 per pound.