Chilean sea bass, also called Patagonian toothfish, is a fish species that became very popular for human consumption in the 1990s. It is a deep water species, and technically not a member of the bass family at all. This fish is caught in the cold, deep waters off the coast of Antarctica, and earned the name Chilean sea bass because Chile was the first country to bring it to the popular market and “sea bass” was deemed more commercially viable than “toothfish.”
At the turn of the 21st century, conservationists and marine fisheries activists alerted consumers to the rapidly dwindling numbers of Chilean sea bass in the Atlantic, warning that continued consumption of the fish could result in extinction for the species. As a result, many well regarded chefs removed it from their menus and sought out alternative sources for the rich, white-meat fish. When allowed to mature on their own, the fish can reach 200 pounds (90 kilograms) in weight, and live for up to 50 years.
The Chilean sea bass is not an extraordinarily attractive fish, with a distinctly prehistoric appearance. It has large eyes, a thrusting jaw, and a muddy skin color. Unfortunately for the fish, the athletic deep sea lifestyle it lives results in a delicious white meat that has minimal oils and a firm texture, standing up well to grilling, baking, saute, and other cooking applications. As a result, this fish quickly became trendy in the 1990s, and the population began to decline shortly thereafter.
Like many deep sea species, Chilean sea bass is a fish that grows and matures very slowly. As a result, widespread commercial fishing in the the 1990s wiped out much of the breeding stock. When conservationists began to express concern about the state of the species, regulatory measures were taken but widespread illegal harvest of the fish continued.
A consortium of 24 countries is currently cooperating to manage Chilean sea bass, monitoring fishing practices and issuing certificates to indicate that the fish is caught legally. If purchasing this fish, consumers should request such a certificate to be sure that the fish has been legally obtained. Catch limits are enforced by inspections of fishing boats and markets, in the hopes of harvesting the fish in a sustainable way.
In general, conservationists hope that consumers refrain from supporting the Chilean sea bass industry until the fish has recovered. If the lure of it in a restaurant is simply too much, consumers should ask about the provenance of the fish. A reputable restaurant should be able to provide documentation for the fish, and if it cannot be provided, the fish may have been illegally collected.
On a commercial level, fish suppliers must provide certificates to restaurants and other wholesale purchasers, and restaurant owners can help to support the fishery by asking for documentation. Supermarkets and fishmongers, likewise, can request documentation for the fish. By working together to preserve precious marine resources, humans can ensure that this species will still be there for future generations to enjoy.