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.
Is Chilean Sea Bass Healthy?
The flaky, white-fleshed fish contains essential nutrients and protein while remaining low in saturated fat. It has many nutritional benefits, and it is an excellent option to include in the American diet.
Chilean sea bass is low in saturated fat and high in Omega-3 fatty acids. These fatty acids are essential for everyone’s health. One serving of this fish provides over 40% of the daily recommended amount of two types of Omega-3, docosahexaenoic acid and eicosapentaenoic acid. Health specialists believe these fatty acids help prevent cancer, heart disease, high cholesterol and other adverse health conditions.
A single serving of this fish also provides a hefty dose of vitamins and minerals. Sea bass has both B-12 and B-6. These B vitamins are essential for healthy digestive and nervous systems. It also contains vitamin D, something necessary for energy and mood.
Sea bass is an excellent source of potassium, selenium and magnesium. Each of these minerals plays an integral part in a person’s health. Selenium is vital for processing thyroid hormones, strengthening the immune system, and producing antioxidants. While magnesium helps calm nerves, improve mood and lower blood pressure, potassium is necessary for proper heart and muscular function.
Chilean sea bass is a great source of protein. Protein is an essential building block for a healthy body. It is necessary for building muscles and providing energy. Protein also helps people feel full, which may prevent overeating. A six-ounce serving has approximately 31 grams of protein.
Is Sea Bass High in Mercury?
One drawback to longer living fish, such as sea bass, is it contains higher levels of mercury. The FDA lists the average amount of mercury in this fish as .354 parts per million. While this isn’t the highest concentration in edible fish, it is still considered moderate. As a result, people should not eat sea bass more than once a week or three times per month.
The Negative Effects of Mercury
This product is not safe for consumption because the human body stores some mercury instead of breaking it down. High levels of mercury might cause problems with the brain, leading to confusion, Alzheimer's and kidney damage. The concern is it takes many years for levels to build up enough to cause symptoms, but there is no cure. The easiest way to avoid this problem is to limit the consumption of fish known to contain high levels of mercury.
How Mercury Ends Up in Fish
Small amounts of mercury exist in the environment. However, human industrialization and improper waste disposal have increased the amount of mercury in water. The process of fossil fuel combustions also expelled mercury into the air. It eventually settles into the ocean or bodies of water that run off into the sea. Mercury is then transformed into methylmercury by bacteria in the water.
Mercury bioaccumulates in the food chain. Plankton absorbs the methylmercury, and small fish eat the plankton. The small fish now contains mercury. As larger fish eat a higher number of small fish, increased levels of mercury build-up in their system. The larger and older the fish, the more mercury-rich food they eat and the more it accumulates in their system. Unfortunately, there is no way to rid the mercury from the fish before eating it.
Why is Chilean Sea Bass so Expensive?
Sea bass is pricier than other popular menu alternatives. Here are a few different reasons why it is so expensive.
- This fish lives in the deep waters of the ocean. Fishing for sea bass requires specialized equipment, more time and the ability to store the fish properly. All this costs more for the fisherman, and the consumer pays the price.
- The demand for the fish is higher than the supply. Consumers have overfished this particular breed, making them much harder to find. As a result, the price of this fish is high.
- It has a rich buttery texture that many people prefer. It is also very mild and absorbs the flavor of any spice or sauce used in a dish.
- The price point means that people are more likely to find it served in fancier restaurants. These establishments can get away with charging a lot for a meal.
- South America is the only place fishers can sell this product locally, so exporters must ship it to other places. Shipping fresh seafood costs a lot of money because exporters must store it on ice in a cooler, fly it overnight and transport it to its destination immediately after arrival.