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Photo of Patagonian toothfish
The Ugly Fish Tale

by Barry Estabrook

In which pirates, chefs, and special agents hunt for the sea's 'white gold'

Within 24 hours of her arrival at Antarctica's McMurdo Station in 1979, Beth Clark, a biologist with the National Science Foundation, baited a five-inch hook with frozen fish, attached it to a heavy cable, and dropped it down a hole drilled into the Ross Ice Shelf. Clark was one of the newest members of a scientific team trying to understand how exactly the Antarctic toothfish adapted to life in waters colder than 32 degrees Fahrenheit. But she was decidedly unprepared for the sight of the slimy creature they hauled to the surface. "I thought, this is what life looked like when the earth was first formed," she says. Snagged 1,000 feet down on the ocean bottom, the massive beast had a mottled brown-and-off-white complexion. It easily outweighed her and measured five feet from the tip of its thrashing tail to the protruding edge of an underbite spiked with a nasty thicket of fangs. Glassy eyes bugged out of its flattened head. "It was so ugly that it was almost cute," she says.

At the time, Clark was one of the few people in the world to have glimpsed the horrid Dissostichus mawsoni, a fish whose physiology is so highly evolved that it can live at ocean depths of more than a mile, where most fish would turn to ice. From its liver, it produces glycoprotein, a natural antifreeze, and further conserves energy over the course of its 80-year life cycle by growing excruciatingly slowly: It isn't until an Antarctic toothfish is eight or nine years old that it can reproduce. And unlike most fish, which maintain buoyancy with the use of an air-filled swim bladder, the toothfish relies on the lightness of its bones, but more importantly on the high oil content of its flesh.

It was quite by accident that Clark discovered that this latter adaptation, so beneficial to life in the icy blackness of Antarctic depths, had epicurean value. One night, not wanting to be wasteful, she cooked and ate a toothfish kept for laboratory examination. The flesh was scrumptious: mild, succulent, slightly sweet, and -- thanks to that abundance of natural oil -- as moist a piece of fish as she had ever put into her mouth. Even the camp chef couldn't overcook it.

Photo of Chilean sea bassMercenary self-interest, not scientific inquiry, brought the toothfish to much wider attention. A few years after Clark's serendipitous discovery, massive factory ships up to 340 feet long and manned by crews of 90 or more, showed up in the waters around Chile and Argentina. Owned by conglomerates from Japan, Spain, and Russia, the boats could process 700 tons of fish a day but had already emptied their home waters of desirable catch. Pushing south of Patagonia, they first wiped out the cod and pollack, then the Austral hake and golden kingclip. When those stocks crashed, they dropped their lines deeper, thousands of feet into oceanic trenches, where lived Dissostichus eleginoides, the Patagonian toothfish, a species whose flesh, like its cousin to the south, was soaked in oil. According to Friends of the Earth Norway, three factory ships owned by the Seattle-based American Seafoods Company were responsible for bringing the first major hauls of Patagonian toothfish to the United States in 1993. Who exactly decided that sales of the Patagonian toothfish would benefit from a more appetizing name isn't clear, but by the time the snow-white fillets hit U.S. markets, it had become Chilean sea bass -- though it was neither strictly Chilean nor remotely related to the bass. Today, both the Antarctic and the Patagonian toothfish are sold under the name.

Chilean sea bass soon popped up on the menus of trendy seafood restaurants across the United States. At Le Cirque 2000 in New York City, it was seared and served with porcini mushrooms. Charlie Trotter in Chicago plated it with roasted carrots, shallots, and mushrooms in a pinot noir sauce. At San Francisco's Hayes Street Grill, Chilean sea bass was marinated in a sake mixture and seared over a fire, becoming one of the restaurant's most popular entrees.

By the mid-1990s, the toothfish, which had spent the last century as nothing more than a little-known scientific curiosity, was fetching $6,000 per ton. Commercial fishermen who had once considered the species "trash fish" now called its flesh "white gold." Fleets wiped out stocks in southern Chile and Argentina within two years of the American Seafood boats' arrival. They then chased new stocks eastward to the Falkland Islands, headed across the southern Atlantic below South Africa, and by 1996 moved into the southern Indian Ocean and the waters between Australia and Antarctica. They left few toothfish in their wake as the fishermen struggled to meet an almost insatiable demand. Toothfish imports to the United States shot up from virtually nothing to 11,000 tons within a decade -- enough to supply 50 million restaurant-sized servings. That, however, only accounted for those portions that entered the country legally.

Last July a group of special agents working for the enforcement division of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) burst into a cold-storage warehouse near Boston Harbor. There, in cardboard crates stacked atop wooden pallets, they found 33 tons of toothfish -- $275,000 worth -- that had been imported with falsified customs permits. "What we do is similar to the work of drug enforcement agents," says Scott Doyle, a 16-year veteran with NOAA who specializes in tracking illegal seafood imports. To evade detection, ships carrying the contraband will repeatedly switch names and their country of registry. One such ship, the Arvisa , became the Eternal , the Camouco , and finally the Kombott , sailing under flags issued by Panama, Mauritania, Netherlands Antilles, and Uruguay -- though it was thought to be owned by a Spanish group.

In the United States, smuggled Chilean sea bass usually arrives frozen in 40-foot-long shipping containers -- mislabeled as monkfish, tuna, or shark. Three months prior to the Boston bust, NOAA agents confiscated 32 tons in New Bedford, Massachusetts. The previous summer, agents discovered 23 tons in Newark, New Jersey.

In 2001, undocumented pirate ships harvested some 110,000 tons of toothfish from Antarctic waters. That same year, according to Clark's estimates, Americans -- the second-largest consumers of toothfish behind the Japanese -- ate about 7,000 tons of it. Clark, who now heads the Antarctica Project, a consortium of environmental groups around the world working to preserve the seventh continent's natural resources, hasn't eaten toothfish since 1980, and her reasoning is clear: "This is a fish that could be on the brink of extinction."

Illustration of a menu What should you do if you see Chilean sea bass on the menu? "First of all, don't order it," says Andrea Kavanagh, head of the Take a Pass on Chilean Sea Bass campaign. Then, depending on your comfort level, you have two options: Tell your waiter right then and there (politely) why the restaurant shouldn't serve it. Or send the restaurant a letter along with materials you can download from the campaign's website. If even that makes you uneasy, email the name and address of the restaurant to Kavanagh: But, she says, "it's best to have the customers spreading the message."

Check our seafood chart to see which fish to order and which to avoid.

Page:  1  2

A summer spent working on a commercial fishing boat after college allowed Barry Estabrook to see firsthand, he says, the "calamitous effects of factory fishing fleets." He often writes about both sustainable fishing practices along with another keen interest -- food -- for publications such as Gourmet and Audubon.

Photos: top, Regulatory Fish Encyclopedia; middle, Root Photography/Stock Food

OnEarth. Summer 2003
Copyright 2003 by the Natural Resources Defense Council