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Chilean Seabass Goes From “Take a Pass” to “Take a Bite”?

By Alison Barratt of Monterey Bay Aquarium Is it really OK to eat Chilean seabass? For nearly a decade, we’ve been hearing “Take a pass on Chilean Seabass,” that pirates are plundering our oceans to put this fish on our plates. And now the Seafood Watch program at the Monterey Bay Aquarium is saying some of it...

By Alison Barratt of Monterey Bay Aquarium

Is it really OK to eat Chilean seabass? For nearly a decade, we’ve been hearing “Take a pass on Chilean Seabass,” that pirates are plundering our oceans to put this fish on our plates. And now the Seafood Watch program at the Monterey Bay Aquarium is saying some of it is OK to eat. Seriously? What’s the catch?

The truth is, when we get vocal and take a stance, change often happens. “Give swordfish a break” took that fish off U.S. menus for a few years, and gave the fish a (sword) fighting chance to rebuild. Are there still issues? Sure, but with mindful management, it can be an option to eat.

Chilean seabass, back on menus? Photo U.S. FDA

So, what’s the deal with the Chilean seabass? (Which is actually not a seabass, nor necessarily from Chile!) It’s a name to make you think a toothfish is something yummy. And boy, did we eat that up. The demand rose so high that it started to look like Pirates of the Caribbean out there. So-called “pirate fishing” is catching fish illegally in other folks’ waters, failing to report catches and not taking account of the impact on endangered wildlife.

All of this lead Seafood Watch to recommend “Avoid” Chilean seabass, except fisheries certified sustainable to the standards of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC).

Take a Pass Campaign

While seafood buyers focused on taking a pass, industry was working to clean up its act. Recognizing that pirate fishing was giving the fishery a “black eye” they worked to clear the seas of these illegal fishers. And governments responded too. The U.S. requires documentation that toothfish comes only from legal fisheries. Such moves have been so successful that pirate fishing is all but gone, and only exists in unregulated areas of the Indian Ocean known as the high seas – perhaps a fitting place for pirates!

And what about the other issues, such as catching endangered wildlife? It’s true that most toothfish is longline-caught – lines that carry thousands of hooks, historically with high levels of bycatch, especially of endangered albatrosses. Introduced measures —closing areas, not throwing waste overboard, line-weighting and streamer lines to scare birds—have been very effective.  Since these measures were introduced, the levels of seabird bycatch are now at their lowest—less than 10 individuals a year.

Seafood Watch on the Hook for Changes

At Seafood Watch, we pride ourselves on being rigorous when it comes to assessing scientific data. Our mission is conservation of the oceans, and to shift the seafood market in favor of ocean-friendly seafood. To state it simply, the science is in, and the science says the industry has made significant changes. That said, we’re not saying it’s all good. Our newest recommendations range from Green, (Best Choice), to yellow (Good Alternatives), to red (Avoid).

There are still problem fisheries out there, and we still say “Avoid” those. But when you buy from the better options you are voting with your dollars for change. Market forces can persuade those on the Avoid list to implement the changes that the industry has already demonstrated are possible.

We will continue to watch what happens with these fisheries, and update our recommendations accordingly. Toothfish is a relatively new species for our plates. They inhabit some of the most remote regions on our planet. There’s so much more to learn about how plentiful they are, the habitats in which they live and what we need to do to support their long-term survival. There is a movement calling for the Ross Sea to be a marine reserve. This is admirable and should that be successful, then fishing will likely be prohibited and our recommendation would be retired. However, while fishing is ongoing, our recommendation reflects the current status of that fishery.

What Should a Consumer Do?

For many years conscious consumers have observed a “red list”: swordfish, monkfish, Chilean seabass, etc. Seeking change and advocating for it, by making the right choices. But over time things change. These species were previously all on the Seafood Watch “red list” but the science no longer supports that in all cases. It’s change we should welcome, but it’s not always easy to accept. The truth is that consumer advocacy for better fishing practices has galvanized action by major buyers of seafood and the industry – and that’s a good thing!

We believe it’s no longer necessary to “Take a wholesale pass on Chilean seabass.” Look for the blue eco-label of the Marine Stewardship Council, or ask where in the world it comes from. This will help you find the best and avoid the rest.

Seafood Watch has a free app for iPhone and Android that’s updated as our recommendations change. Our mobile site, works on all smart phones for smart consumers! Thanks for being ocean-friendly when you shop for seafood.

Editor’s note: Also check out National Geographic’s Seafood Decision Guide, which incorporates health information as well as sustainability.

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Meet the Author

Author Photo David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn