Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Hooked: Pirates, Poaching, and the Perfect Fish

OK, this is not about birds but a topic that should resonate strongly with anyone with an appreciation for marine ecosystems and the Southern Ocean. Author G. Bruce Knecht, a foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, describes a 3-week and four thousand mile long chase by the Australian customs and fisheries patrol vessel Southern Supporter across the stormy Southern Ocean in pursuit of Viarsa-1, a 175-foot longliner registered in Uruguay and loaded with illegally caught fish. Eventually, these modern-day pirates were apprehended and taken into custody, ending a dramatic chase through some of the most unforgiving seas in the southern hemisphere.

Knecht outlines the inspirational marketing that turned the once 'inedible' Patagonian Toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides) into the 'Chilean Seabass', arguably the most chic fish served in top-end restaurants in the United States and to a lesser extent in Europe. In 2001, Bon Appetite magazine went as far as to declared the fish, 'Dish of the Year'. With skillful marketing, an appetite for the next culinary new thing and increasing scarcity of other valued species, the price of 'Chilean Seabass' has soared. While diversity in our piscine menu is probably a good thing when it comes to harvesting wild fish populations. Just think of the demise of the North Atlantic Cod, the staple of fish and chips or the extraordinarily wasteful bycatch of Gulf shrimp fisheries. As prices rose, many toothfish stocks quickly vanished and the commercial fishing fleets were forced to exploit more and more remote fishing grounds, such as the Ross Sea in Antarctica and waters around Heard Island in the remote and stormy waters of the southern Indian Ocean, the starting point of this tale.

It is difficult to capture the discomfort of life aboard relatively small ships in big seas. Knecht describes the bone jarring crash that is repeated over and over again as the Southern Supporter climbs one enormous wave and then falls bow-first into the next.
"But the worst part came when the bow plunged into the trough. It felt as if it had literally struck a wall. Earthquake-like shudders moved from the front of the ship back. Cabin walls shifted and bent, creating the impression that the hull was being pressed together like an accordion."
Both the Patagonian Toothfish and its close relative, the Antarctic Toothfish are found in cold waters of the Southern Ocean and like many deepwater fish, they reproduce very slowly. If left alone, toothfish can live for more than 50 years and grow to an impressive 2 meters (6 feet) in length. The are caught by bottom trawling or on long lines, both methods having severe drawbacks. Bottom trawling damages the ocean floor, which again can be slow to recover at such cold ambient temperatures, and careless long-lining may threaten albatrosses, shearwaters and other pelagic seabirds. For these various reasons it is hard to see how the Patagonian Toothfish is suitable for commercial exploitation under any circumstances. There are legal fisheries but surely they will deplete the stock soon enough? The shifting name game continues, and shoppers or restaurant patrons should be mindful of fish labeled as mero, bacalao de profundidad, icefish or black hake. This fascinating fish is not a hake by any stretch nor is it a seabass.
Title: Hooked: Pirates, Poaching, and the Perfect Fish
Author: G. Bruce Knecht
Publisher: Rodale Books
Publication Date: May 2007
ISBN-10: 1594866945
ISBN-13: 978-1594866944
Paperback, 328 pages, black and white photographs
Retail Price: $16.95 (US)

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