Fish Tale: The Rise and Precipitous Fall of Chilean Sea Bass

HOOK In the late seventies an American fish wholesaler named Lee Lantz discovered that Chilean fishermen had begun catching something called Patagonian toothfish. Most considered the five-foot–long deep-sea creature junk, or bycatch, but Lantz bought a few pounds and found that the flesh was mild with a pleasing texture. LINE Lantz renamed it Chilean sea bass and began importing it to the United States. Within a decade the fish became wildly popular. SINKER Unlike many shallow-water species, the toothfish takes a long time—eight years—to reach reproductive maturity. By 1997 around 100,000 tons were being harvested annually. Countries began enforcing limits (for an excellent account, read Hooked: Pirates, Poaching, and the Perfect Fish by G. Bruce Knecht), but by 2001 several important populations had declined to one percent of their original number. In 2002 an American-led campaign called Take a Pass on Chilean Sea Bass was launched. "It was hard because it was our number-one selling item," said New York chef Rick Moonen. "But regulations are too lax." Illegal fishing increased between 2004 and 2005, and at this point experts say much of the sea bass served in the States is poached.