Environmental Concerns

The Catch
October 23, 2005
New York Times

On a dank, cold morning this past March, full of wind and the gloom of the sub-Antarctic autumn, I stepped off the customs pier in the Falkland Islands port of Stanley and tried to board a pirate ship. The Elqui, a rusted-out heap flying the Guinean flag, sat impounded at the dock, her captain awaiting charges from the British territorial government of South Georgia Island. What had brought the Elqui and its 30-odd Indonesian, African and South American crew members to this remote harbor at the bottom of the world were Chilean sea bass, 13 tons of which now lay frozen below the ship's deck.

Illustration by John Rice

After a knock on the door, Capt. Christian Vargas emerged, stressed out and exhausted and stinking of tobacco, sweat and bait.

"I can't talk until the hearing," he said.

"Who are the owners of the ship?"

"I can't talk about it."

And with that he slipped back into the pilothouse and struck up a conversation with his Spanish fishing master.

Despite an American-led "Take a Pass on Chilean Sea Bass" campaign, boycotts from celebrity chefs and strict legal quotas on the catch, Chilean sea bass still sells briskly in the United States for as much as $20 a pound - nearly five times what it cost when it first appeared in U.S. markets in the 1980's. A whole animal may go for more than $1,000. In short, the Chilean sea bass is today one of the most valuable fish in the sea. It is therefore of little surprise that Captain Vargas and his crew were drawn to ply the skyscraper-size waves and mile-deep trenches of the South Atlantic for a little bit of booty. What is surprising is that they were caught red-handed and that a serious attempt was being made to punish them.

And the Elqui was not the only boat feeling the heat from sea-bass defenders that week. While Captain Vargas awaited his hearing, naval frigates on the other side of Antarctica were scrambling to confront a squadron of pirate vessels at the edge of Australian territorial waters. In fact, the Elqui's apprehension is just the latest clash in what may be the most ambitious crusade ever mounted to save a species of fish. From Chile to Argentina to the British-controlled islands of the South Atlantic and east to Africa and Australia, hundreds of scientists, undercover investigators and government agencies have joined forces to protect the last viable stocks of this slow-growing deep-water predator.

It may seem strange that so much effort is being focused on an animal that 25 years ago was known to only a handful of Antarctic scientists and that went by the ungainly name of Patagonian toothfish. But Chilean sea bass today have become the signature species in a battle of global proportions. Put in very blunt terms, the world is running out of fish. According to a study published in July in Science, marine species diversity has declined by 10 to 50 percent in the last half-century, and a 2003 report found that up to 90 percent of the populations of the ocean's major predators are gone. It is the thick-fleshed "major predators" - cod, tuna and Chilean sea bass, to name a few - that humans crave most. And though these collapsed fish stocks are increasingly being replaced on the market by aquacultured product, fish farming is still highly problematic and so far cannot come close to matching what the ocean produces on its own. What we are seeing now are the last desperate calculations over the undomesticated fish that remain. On one side of the equation, fisheries managers in places like the Falklands are trying to wall in their piece of the ocean, building ramparts of regulations to keep enough fish in the water to maintain a sustainable harvest. On the other side, "illegal, unreported and unregulated" - or "I.U.U." - fishing boats like the Elqui are laying siege to those same waters and stealing the fish out from under their protectors. In some fisheries, the pirate haul may be four times the legal catch. The Chilean sea bass is the unlikely Helen in this undersea Trojan War. What happens to it as the siege plays out will inform what can be done to manage marine life. Ultimately it may determine whether we can keep on eating ocean fish, the last truly wild food on earth.

Those on the fisheries-management side of the war insist that things are starting to go their way. They claim that a combination of satellite monitoring of fishing boats, tighter import controls and high-profile arrests have greatly reduced the pirate catch in the last three years. Indeed, just as the Elqui was being brought to dock, a corporate-nonprofit partnership called the Marine Stewardship Council was completing a study of the same waters where the Elqui was caught poaching and was on the verge of declaring the Chilean-sea-bass fishery of South Georgia Island "sustainable."

But even after watching the impressive international marine-conservation machine in action and meeting with the scientists and regulators who had engineered the South Georgia success story, the question that had been bothering me all the way down the Chilean coast to the Falklands remained: Is this fish managed well enough to eat?

The idea of managing the sea is a relatively new one, largely because for most of fishing history, the difference between what humans needed and what the ocean could provide was so great that the concept seemed absurd. For fishers of days past the closest thing to a management policy consisted of finding a fish, learning how to catch it and then catching all of it. Daniel Pauly, the director of the Fisheries Center at the University of British Columbia and a noted expert on global fishing trends, cites the example of the earliest anglers, Stone Age peoples in Africa who eradicated a six-foot-long catfish 90,000 years ago and then moved on to another animal. "This pattern," Pauly says, of fishermen "exterminating the population upon which they originally relied, and then moving on to other species, has continued ever since."

For most of fishing history, this species trade-in scheme was not particularly problematic. The lost fish of the past, like the sheepshead (for which Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn is named), are easily forgotten when another fish can take its place. But the loss that brought the Chilean sea bass to our plates in the 1980's was of a magnitude never seen before.

With the slight lilt of his native France in his voice tinged by a quiver of indignity, Pauly points out that the sea bass's white, flaky, easy-to-cook flesh makes it an excellent substitute for what was once the most common table fish in the world. "What it substitutes for," says Pauly, "and what it is, is cod." As has been well documented in Mark Kurlansky's best seller "Cod," the cod stocks of the North Atlantic fed the world for hundreds of years. International fleets plied the Grand Banks off Canada, procuring enough cod to support the slave economy of the Americas and the working classes of Europe alike. Fish populations held up through the First and Second World Wars. But in the 1970's the North Atlantic cod catches started declining, sending shock waves through the world's fishing nations. And in the 1980's, after North American and European countries tried to address the cod crash with sweeping, protectionist regulations, a new era of search-and-destroy fishing began - one in which ships would travel to the farthest corners of the globe to find something else to catch.

Thanks to the free-market policies of the dictator Augusto Pinochet, southern Chile would end up being one of the first new territories to bear the brunt of the displaced international fleets. As part of what the Pinochet junta called the Apertura, or "Opening," foreign trawlers were granted cheap access to the fertile waters of the Chilean continental shelf. Within a few years they began wiping out stocks of hake and other codlike fish, pushing local Chilean fisherman, known as los artesanales, off their traditional fishing grounds. With nowhere else to go but farther out to sea, los artesanales moved onto the abyssal waters of the continental slope. Bobbing around in small, brightly colored boats, they let their lines down farther and farther, all the way down into the Humboldt current, a frigid shunt of water that moves along the base of the Chilean continental slope at depths exceeding 5,000 feet. It was then that they began to haul out a strange fish they had never seen before.

About the size of a German shepherd, the animal had an air of the prehistoric to it. Thick scales covered its body. It had large eyes, mounted near the top of its head. Those, combined with a set of sharp teeth jutting from an underslung jaw, gave it a kind of cross-eyed, Alfred E. Neuman grin. When the fishermen gutted them, they found their innards were as cold as the polar seas. Toothfish, it seemed, were using the Humboldt current to make their way from Antarctica up the Chilean coast.

And there were lots of them. So many that by working the Humboldt in the early 1980's, los artesanales carved out a unique niche for themselves. Unlike cumbersome international trawlers, los artesanales used simple chains of baited hooks that allowed them to fish extreme depths cheaply. At one point they even opened up an export market with traders in Southern California. In fact, the name "Chilean" sea bass hails from this period when toothfish were used as a replacement species for collapsed American fish like a West Coast favorite called California white sea bass. Consumers barely noticed the switch.

But eventually the factory ships retooled for toothfish, and today, as is evidenced by the ramshackle barrios that ring port towns along the Patagonian coast, los artesanales can scrape only a meager living from the sea. Whereas local fishermen once caught close to two and a quarter pounds of toothfish per baited hook, now they get just three and a half ounces. And while los artesanales have played a significant part in overfishing toothfish, they understandably focus their blame on the industrial fleets. Particularly galling to them was the government auction of the especially productive toothfish waters south of the 47th parallel to the highest bidder, i.e., the international fishing consortia that drove los artesanales to toothfish in the first place.

"Everyone has taken advantage of the local fishermen," says Raul Gonzales, an extremely vocal artesanale I met in the port of Valdivia. "This was an opportunity for the local fishermen to help themselves to create a real business. Because we were the ones who deserve the possibility. Not the people who got involved later."

But the cascading decline of fish species in the last quarter-century created a hunger for toothfish much greater than could ever be sated by Chile's artisinal fishermen. Striped bass, Atlantic halibut, redfish and others joined the codfish in a massive American marine population crash, and by the 90's all had sunk to new lows. And just as fish were tanking, desire for fish was soaring. The discovery of the omega-3 fatty acid and other health benefits of fish compelled new consumers to eat them. And today, as Daniel Pauly notes, "there are far more people with enough money to buy seafood. And so in Europe, in America and in Asia, the demand is not traditional." Ultimately it has taken nontraditional foreign fish, like the toothfish, to meet this nontraditional demand.

The toothfish, however, possesses one specific quality that has made it the nontraditional fish of choice. Most fish we eat are equipped with an airtight organ called a swim bladder. By filling its swim bladder with air, a fish saves energy, letting the rising effect of gasses do the work of swimming up. The ancestors of the toothfish, however, were benthic fishes - dedicated deep-water bottom feeders that never moved more than a few feet above the sea floor. As such, they lost the need for a swim bladder long ago, and it was soon crowded out by other organs in the fish's gut.

But eventually the direct predecessors of the Patagonian toothfish found it advantageous to rise off the bottom and hunt for prey in shallower water. Without a swim bladder to work from, the ur-toothfish needed to develop an alternate buoyancy device. Over time, glands developed under the fish's skin that secreted fats directly into its muscle tissue. Fats, being lighter than water, performed the same function as a swim bladder, lightening the animal and allowing it to rise from depths of 6,000 feet to as shallow as 200 feet with little effort.

This trait made the toothfish a very effective predator for millions of years. But when the modern human seafood diner evolved a taste for fish, the fa