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?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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."

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.

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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.

Are boycotts effective?

"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.

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.

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.

And representatives from 160 countries have been meeting since Nov. 3 in Santiago, Chile, to consider adding the sea bass to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. This decision has the potential to reduce and possibly even eliminate illegal fishing for this species, advocates say.

The goal of the NET's Chilean sea bass campaign is to cutdemand drastically in the US, thereby putting a halt to unlawful fishing that threatens the survival of this large, slow-to-mature species. This campaign started in six major US cities, where the NET asked chefs to agree to stop serving the fish until populations begin to recover. So far, more than 1,000 restaurant chefs have taken the South American fish off their menus, offering substitutions such as Alaskan halibut, hook-and-line-caught cod, or striped bass, and informing customers - via menu notes and a well-briefed wait staff - about its plight.

Most people hadn't even heard of Chilean sea bass 10 years ago, even though this large, prehistoric-looking species has been harvested off the southern coast of Chile, even as far down as Antarctica, since the early 1980s. But in recent years, marketers worked hard to put it on plates everywhere, first by changing its name from Patagonian toothfish to a more attractive, sophisticated-sounding moniker.

The timing was perfect, as consumption of seafood was already rising because of a flurry of publicity touting its nutritional benefits. In 2001, Americans ate 3.4 more pounds more fish per person than the year before, increasing their annual consumption to 17.4 pounds. (That same year, they also ate 34 pounds more poultry and 21 pounds less red meat.)

Also working in favor of the popularity of Chilean sea bass, typically an expensive fish, has been increased affluence of diners, as well as cultivation of more sophisticated palates. And the fact that this fish is one of the most forgiving to cook is a major draw for restaurants.

The buzz about salmon

With all this attention being given to the trendy toothfish, one might think it's the only fish in the sea. Its cause just happens to be uppermostthese days. But many proponents of the "Take a Pass on Chilean Seabass" campaign want consumers to make other choices that also support sustainable seafood. Next on their list: promotingwild Alaskan salmon overfarmed Atlantic salmon.

To help supply the global demand for seafood, fish farms - where fish, shrimp, and shellfish are raised typically in large nets in ocean waters - have been opening at a rapid rate. Today, almost 20 percent of the world's seafood comes from fish farms. The ecological impact of this varies depending on the type of species, how it is raised, and where the farm is located.

Sixty percent of the world's salmon, the third-most-popular seafood after shrimp and tuna, is now farmed, mostly in the Atlantic Ocean. Originally, these farms were thought to be the solution to a dwindling supply, but since then, complications have been discovered.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium says farm-raised Atlantic salmon is riddled with problems. For starters, this organization reports, with thousands of fish concentrated in one net, the ocean water can quickly become polluted with their waste.

The aquarium also says that these salmon are more prone to disease, which can be spread to wild species when they escape from the pens, which happens often. And after an escape, they could also encroach on the habitat of the wild fish, and mix up the gene pool.

In addition, farmed salmon are fed small wild fish, such as anchovies, which are an important part of the underwater food chain.

Some groups urge consumers to buy wild Alaskan salmon (king, sockeye, and chum, to name a few) instead of consuming farmed salmon. Wild is considered both sustainable and renewable since it can be harvested only within federally designated fishing seasons and, within those seasons, under the supervision of federally designated fisheries.

Is all fish farming suspect?

Even those who are opposed to farming Atlantic salmon are not necessarily against seafood farming altogether. For example, Adler, who is also a cookbook author ("Fish & Shellfish Grilled & Smoked"), often buys farmed catfish from Mississippi. "They have figured out how to do it right," she says. "And the quality is outstanding."

One has to be a bit skeptical, she adds, of hype about the dangers of fish farms. "You don't know if it's being generated by a competitor or if it's being exaggerated," she explains. "For the most part, I believe fish farms make ecological sense."

When it really comes down to it, says chef Douglass, most people don't think too much about where their restaurant meal comes from. And despite his advocacy of sustainable seafood, he isn't on a mission to educate them. "People are interested in how their meal tastes and how it's prepared," he says. "And I try to make the best decisions possible."

Among those decisions is one to serve mostly fresh, local seafood with the exception of wild Alaskan salmon and halibut. So the Chilean sea bass campaign isn't much of an issue for him.

"I don't like to get fish from so far away, and I never understood the huge appeal [of the fish] anyway," he says.

Douglass is a champion of cod fishermen who catch their fish off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, using hook-and-line methods instead of gill nets. Critics frown upon the latter, sayingthe nets entangle and kill fish - as well as other marine life - in their webbing, which sits at the ocean bottom.

'Artisanal' fishing

The hook-and-line method, on the other hand, is an age-old technique where a fish isbrought on board the ship alive, one line and one hook at a time, allowing fishermen to return itto the sea if it istoo small.

Using this approach, which many now call "artisanal" fishing, commercial fishermen who work off the coast of Cape Cod can bring in about 1,500 pounds of cod per day for each boat. Each of the boats typically includes up to three fishermen - a captain and two-man crew. And they don't get slapped with fines for catching fish that are too small.

While Douglass acknowledges that cod stocks are at "dangerously low levels," he supports this method. Fishermen who are rigging with hooks, he explains, are taking only targeted species at the legal size and returning the undersized fish to the sea.

"I believe it's wrongheaded," he says, "not to encourage and support those in the trenches who are trying to do the right thing."

Seafood sites

To learn more about current seafood issues and the choices suggested by conservationists, visit these websites:

• Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch, www.mbayaq.org/cr/seafoodwatch.asp • The Audubon Society's Seafood Guide From Living Oceans, www.audubon.org/campaign/lo/seafood/index.html

Seafood Substitutions

Atlantic cod: Hook-caught Atlantic cod, Alaskan lingcod, Black cod
Orange roughy: Catfish, Striped bass
Grouper: Mahi-mahi
Farmed salmon: Wild Alaskan salmon
Shrimp: California trap-caught spot prawns, Atlantic northern pink shrimp, Certified turtle-sage shrimp
Dredged clams: Farmed clams
Dredged mussels: Rope-cultured native mussels
Dredged oysters: Cultured or farmed oysters
Dredged scallops: Farmed scallops
Lobster: Mature farmed crawfish

Striped bass, a well-managed species all along the Atlantic coast, can be used as a substitute for many species of depleted fish, such as black sea bass, Pacific rockfish, groupers, snappers, and Patagonian toothfish (Chilean sea bass).Source: Seafood Lovers Almanac(by National Audubon Society's Living Oceans Program)

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