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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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.