IT'S BEEN ABOUT A MONTH since I last ate at Cafe Zaffarano near the Admiral Theatre in West Seattle, but I'm still thinking about my last meal there. I'm betting the dish—a delicious, buttery hunk of fish served on a generous mess of minced shallots, chives, and parsley in champagne vinegar—will go down as one of the best seafood preparations of the summer. As good as it was, however, it isn't the crisp, golden tang and tart spike of the thick herbed sauce or the perfectly grilled fish on top of it, or even the surprising mandarin oranges that finished the dish that sticks in my mind. The Chilean sea bass I had that night is in danger of extinction, and I am a jerk for enjoying it.
Chilean sea bass, first of all, is not a sea bass at all. Taken from southern ocean waters around Antarctica, Patagonian and Antarctic toothfish became popular in America and Asia in the early '90s after the fish was renamed Chilean sea bass and marketed as a high-end menu star because of its rich, meaty texture and high oil content. When Bon Appétit magazine named the fish the dish of the year in 2001, toothfish became the misnomered belle of the ball. The spike in demand eventually caused warning bells—mostly because toothfish, geographically isolated and naturally slow growing, are vulnerable to overfishing even without high consumer demand—and the subsequent enforcement of fishing quotas came soon after. And right on those heels, of course, came higher prices and even higher demand.
No matter what you (or merchants claiming to have legal supplies of it) call it or how much you'll pay for it (it goes for about $17 per pound in fish markets) Seafood Watch, a program of the Monterey Bay Aquarium designed to monitor the sustainability of seafood and educate consumers, lists this fish as one to avoid. Ditto the Smithsonian Institution. The Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition, a network of more than 240 conservation organizations from over 40 countries, called for a moratorium on the commercial harvesting of toothfish. Even a report issued by the U.S. Department of Commerce and U.S. Department of State, two groups likely to favor commercial issues over environmental ones, concedes that in some waters the fish are being overharvested and states that in 2000 alone, perhaps upward of 30,000 tons of toothfish—or half of the total import—were caught illegally. According to data supplied by National Marine Fisheries Services, U.S. imports of toothfish have increased since 2000, and there is very little to suggest that in that time, those shady fishermen have gone straight. Yes, there are legal suppliers of toothfish, and when you see Chilean sea bass on the menu or in your market's ice, I'd suggest you ask the management if they've seen their dealer's permit. According to U.S. customs and NOAA, legally and responsibly caught toothfish cannot get into the country without one.
THIS BEING SEATTLE AND ALL, I'm sure you'll have your own version of what it means to do the right thing. Hobey Grote, the owner of Seattle Fish Company, my neighborhood supplier in West Seattle, believes he is helping educate consumers by keeping the legal stuff on hand. But last time I was in, the fish was labeled only Patagonian toothfish, and I don't see how avoiding the incorrect, potentially controversial "Chilean sea bass" is necessarily educational. Wild Salmon Seafood Market at Fisherman's Terminal sells toothfish as well; they believe that a simple boycott isn't going to help the working fishermen who are cooperating with the legal system. PCC stores do not carry toothfish; they do keep Seafood Watch's color-coded seafood cards on hand so that customers can reference their recommendations. Restaurants like Flying Fish, Palisades, and Earth and Ocean simply don't offer toothfish; in accordance with National Environmental Trust's Take a Pass on Chilean Sea Bass program, they won't put it on their menus.
Me? From now on, I'll just order wild Alaskan salmon instead.