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 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, seafoodwatch.org 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.

Forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David 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. He has 120,000 followers on social media. David Braun edits the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directs 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. Follow David on Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn
  • Cassandra

    Having been a huge proponent for the Monterey Bay Aquarium and their Seafood Watch Guide for many years, this news comes as a huge disappointment. As a marine scientist who has studied Ross Sea toothfish, I am shocked that these fish would receive the yellow (Good Alternative) ranking or that other populations would receive the green (Best Choice) ranking. These are fish that live to be at least 40 years old, don’t mature until their teens and likely don’t reproduce every year. Further, we have yet to learn when and where exactly they spawn, no one has found an Antarctic toothfish larvae or egg. How can we call a fishery sustainable when we still don’t know these fundamental facts about their basic life history? In the past we have fished first and asked questions later – this has led to the near decimation of so many fish species, particularly deep-dwellers like the toothfish.

    I can understand the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s desire to support certifiably sustainable fisheries, and many toothfish fisheries have recently been certified as “sustainable” by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). However, the MSC certification for Ross Sea toothfish was fought by hundreds of scientists and members of ocean conservation groups. After three years of battle, the fishery was indeed certified. But rather than engendering support for the fishery or for the MSC, the certification has attracted intense scrutiny which has yet to subside. Even Safeway refuses to sell Ross Sea toothfish, despite the MSC eco-label.

    Moving toothfish off the red list was a risky and premature move by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Looking at the state of the world’s oceans, can we be so brazen as to ignore the voices of hundreds of Antarctic marine scientists who are pushing for protection of the Ross Sea? Do we really want to celebrate and encourage fishing in one of the last intact marine ecosystems we have left on the planet?

  • David Ainley

    In January 2007, G.B. Knecht, author of the book about Chilean sea bass (CSB), Hooked: Pirates, Poaching and the Perfect Fish, in an article in the Wall Street Journal, warned that the move then by Whole Foods and Wal-Mart, both of whom sit on the Board of the Marine Stewartship Council (MSC), to once again sell CSB would send a confused message to consumers. At that time MSC certified as a product of “sustainable fishing” about ~2000t of Patagonian toothfish caught in the South Georgia fishery, a total that at the time was about 7% of legally caught Chilean sea bass available in the market (~28,000t). By then, after depleting many stocks of Patagonian toothfish, industry had moved south into sea ice covered waters to incorporate Antarctic toothfish under the CSB label as well. One didn’t have to visit many markets or restaurants to realize that that tiny fishery (just a few vessels) could not possibly have been responsible for all the CSB being sold in the US. Someone was being duped, big time. Under the mantra, “Take a pass on Chilean sea bass,” consumers had been trained by Sea Food Watch (SFW) to avoid CSB. Why? Because the fish owing to its natural history strategy is highly susceptible to adult mortality (easy to deplete), and the bycatch of birds, fish and benthic invertebrates was unacceptable. However, by January 2007 by MSC’s action it became ok to consume the fish. And a mere six years later, MSC and now SFW, have certified a bit less than 50% of the legally caught catch, with the illegally caught tonnage still being significant and sold “somewhere.” What has changed so rapidly? Has the bycatch decreased? Well, yes, as a result of the 100s of thousands of kilometers of benthic longlines stripping clean the 1000 year old corals and sponges in which toothfish hide, depleting the benthic fishes in their diet (fish even more susceptible to adult mortality than the toothfish themselves), and depleting albatross populations to 10% of their former numbers. In this new baseline, which changes yearly, yes, the CSB fishery is now sustainable. So, thank you, SFW for confusing consumers even more than they had been with an analysis frought with inaccuracies and ultimately paid for by a small portion of the fishing industry (through MSC).

  • Stacy Kim

    I would like to comment on the recent Seafood Watch/MBA decision to make Dissostichus mawsonii (Chilean seabass) in the Ross Sea region a “good alternative” and National Geographics decision to celebrate this. This is an issue I have followed closely due to my research in the region, and my assessment of the data is that this fishery is not well managed, that the catch limits set are well beyond sustainable, and that strongly negative ecosystems impacts as a result of this overfishing are evident in the Ross Sea food webs. While I am not as closely following the fisheries in other regions (two are given “best choice” and “good alternative” ratings as well), my knowledge of the life history of this species and the congeneric D. eleginoides (slow growing, slow to mature) and the unknowns that plague the fishery models (almost nothing known about reproduction, larval, and juvenile stages) indicate that the predictions used by CCAMLR to set catch limits are neither precautionary nor ecosystem based. I realize that the fishery was recently certified as “sustainable” by the MSC but I have been somewhat involved in that process and now know how politically and financially driven it is, and have sadly concluded that MSC is a marketing and money-making ploy with little ecological relevance. Most convincing is my first hand observations of the changes occurring in the Ross Sea – there is less food for Type C killer whales and they are evidently prey switching to a poorer quality food source, which is causing Adelie penguins to also have to switch to a sub-optimal food resource. These changes are just now happening, so I am hopeful they are not yet irreversible, but if the overfishing pressure continues on the D. mawsonii I predict we will see reductions in the iconic top predators of the Ross Sea – and lose the last place we have to study an ecosystem with a full complement of top predators. So for scientific as well as aesthetic and educational reasons I hope that MBA will reconsider their Seafood Watch classification of Chilean seabass, gathering more evidence from the primary literature and making an ecosystem-based and precautionary decision. And that National Geographic will carefully scrutinize the postings on their web site, as it implies approval by a well-respected organization (NG) of a scientifically questionable decision.

  • Peter Young

    In green lighting Antarctic Toothfish or Chilean Seabass as it is know in the market, Monterey Bay Aquarium (MBA) is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. As the most untouched and intact marine ecosystem on Earth, the Ross Sea requires special consideration and should NOT be lumped in with a MBA’s broader assessment of the fishery. The MSC certification process only measures the science of sustainability not the intrinsic value of the ecosystem that the fishery takes place in. Taking toothfish from the Ross Sea’s pristine environment is a-kin to taking buffalo from Yellowstone or Kiwi’s from the forests of New Zealand. We could do it sustainably but decide not to because these natural areas add so much value to our human lives and teach us about the natural world, we are compelled to protect them. In a world of diminishing resources we need to fight tooth and nail to protect these last untouched areas of ocean. The Ross Sea is a big fly in the ointment of the Chilean Seabass debate and now Monterey Bay Aquarium’s integrity. By labeling this fishery green they are contributing directly to the demise of Earth’s last vestige of an intact marine ecosystem. I urge them to keep an open mind and reconsider.
    Peter Young
    “The Last Ocean” Documentary

  • Jim Barnes

    This is one of the more glib, analysis free justifications I’ve seen for advising consumers to eat Ross Sea Antarctic toothfish. I would have expected better from you. ASOC, the Antarctic Ocean Alliance and dozens of environmental groups have been battling to gain marine protected area status for the Ross Sea in the face of the fishing taking place there. The MSC certification for only a few of the vessels involved was unjustified and certainly can not be extrapolated to the rest. The science on which the fishery is based on dubious at best, and most of the world’s scientific experts on the Ross Sea recommend complete protection. Several vessels involved in the Ross Sea fishery have sunk in recent years killing dozens of fishermen as it is one of the most inhospitable places on earth to fish. The Ross Sea deserves the fullest possible protection, which will both protect its amazing array of wildlife and relatively pristine ecosystem as well as allowing it to serve as a global climate reference area. Fishing should be phased out.
    James N. Barnes
    Executive Director, ASOC

  • Alison Barratt

    Thank you for your comments. Seafood Watch welcomes all relevant information pertinent to these toothfish fisheries. Please use our online tool at http://swat.seafoodwatch.org/ to upload data, or apprise us of other relevant science based information. You can find how these fisheries scored under our criteria in the full report http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/cr/cr_seafoodwatch/content/media/MBA_SeafoodWatch_ChileanSeabassReport.pdf Thank you.

  • Rhian Waller

    This is enormously disappointing. Less bycatch and more regulated fishermen does not a sustainable fishery make! So little is known about the ecology of Dissostichus mawsonii, that this species should never have been allowed to be a commercial fish in the first place – but now we know it is very long lived and takes tens of years to even reach reproductive maturity. The limits set on this species do not seem to take that into account and are bound to generate a boom-and-bust fishery – ESPECIALLY if widely recognized organizations like MBARI and Seafood Watch are going to start saying it’s okay to eat it. I have always upheld that Seafood Watch was the place to go to for sensible choices, and now I am forced to revaluate my support for this program. Offering a place to “upload data” when the data is widely published in the peer reviewed literature makes me wonder where the decision came from.

    As a deep-sea coral researcher who has seen fisheries damage on coral and sponge reefs in the Southern Ocean resulting from this fishery, it is hugely frustrating to see what was once a ‘win’ for deep-sea conservation turn into such a negative. I join others on here to sincerely hope that Seafood Watch decides to overturn this decision and continue to make “sustainable choices” accessible to mass audiences.

  • Tosca Ballerini

    I am really surprised and disappointed by the decision of the Monterey Bay Aquarium to give green and yellow labels to the consumption of Patagonian toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides) and of Antarctic toothfish (Dissostichus mawsoni). This shows they gave these labels without doing their homework right, i.e. they did not read the relevant peer-reviewed literature. Sadly, this makes me worry about the certification labels they have given to other fisheries as well.
    Take as an example the Ross Sea Antarctic toothfish fishery: there is high scientific uncertainty both at the population level (number of stock or populations of Ross Sea Antarctic Toothfish unknown) and at the species level (the majority of life-history parameters unknown). Because of the lack of data on the Antarctic toothfish, when MSC decided to certify the Ross Sea Antarctic toothfish longline fishery there has been a large debate on the scientific community on the sustainability of this fishery and this started a debate on the credibility of MSC certification process itself (Blight et al. 2009, Stockstad, 2010, Jacquet et al. 2010, Froese and Proelss, 2012).
    Removal of Antarctic toohfish has the potential to determine trophic cascades in the Ross Sea food web (Pinkerton and Breadford-Greve, 2010). While currently there are no monitoring programs that look at Antarctic toothfish predators (the CCAMLR Ecosystem Monitoring Program, CEMP, being limited to krill predators only), there are indications that commercial removal of Ross Sea Antarctic toothfish has already affected Weddell Seals and Killer whale populations (Ainley and Siniff, 2009; Ainley et al. 2009).
    Seafood Watch guidelines aim to increase consumer awareness and to encourage businesses to purchase seafood that is fished or farmed in ways that do not harm the environment and when there is scientific uncertainty on the status of a fishery, Seafood Watch should use a precautionary approach (i.e. errs on the side of conservation). This was not what they did in the case of the Patagonian and Antarctic toothfish.
    I hope Monterey Bay Aquarium will reconsider the their labels for the Patagonian and Antarctic toothfish fishery. If they will acknowledge they made a mistake and correct it, they will win back my trust.
    Some informative reading:
    – Ainley, D., Ballard G., Olmastroni S., 2009, An apparent decrease in the prevalence of “Ross Sea Killer Whales” in the Southern Ross Sea, Acquatic Mammals, 335-347
    – Ainley and Siniff, 2009, The Importance of Antarctic toothfish as prey of Weddell seals in the Ross Sea, Antarctic Science, 21(4), 317-327
    – ASOC, 2009, appeal to MSC certification on Ross Sea Antarctic Toohfish longline fishery
    – ASOC, 2010, Response to Moody Marine Ross Sea Remand
    – Blight, L., et al. 2010 Fishing for Data in the Ross Sea. Science: 330 (6009) 1316
    – Brooks, C.M. and Ashford, J.R. “Spatial distribution and age structure of the Antarctic toothfish (Dissostichus mawsoni) in the Ross Sea, Antarctica” (CCAMLR WG-FSA-08-18, CCAMLR, Hobart, Australia, 2008.
    – CCAMLR Scientific report on Ross Sea toothfish fishery 2011
    – Constable, A. 2011 Lessons from CCAMLR on the implementation of the ecosystem approach to managing fisheries, Fish and Fisheries, 12: 138-151
    – DeVries, A.L. and J. T. Eastman, “Brief review of the biology of Dissostichus mawsoni” CCAMLR Doc WG-FSA-98/49, CCAMLR, Hobart, Australia, 1998;
    – Froese and Proelss 2012 Evaluation and assesement of certified food. MARINE POLICY
    – Hanchet, S.M. Rickard, G. J., Fenaughty, J. M. , Dunn, A. , Williams M. J. H., 2008, CCAMLR Sci. 15, 35
    – Jacquet, J., Pauly, D., Ainley, D., Holt, S., Dayton, P., Jackson, J. 2010 Seafood stewardship in crisis NATURE 467, 28-29
    – Österblom, H., Sumaila, U. R., Bodin, Ö., Sundberg, H. J. , Press, A. J. 2010, PLoS ONE 5
    – Pinkerton M.H., Bradford-Grieve, 2010, A balanced model of the food web of the Ross Sea, Antarctica, CCAMLR Science,17, 1-31
    – Stokstad, E. Behind the Eco-Label, a Debate Over Antarctic Toothfish, Science 24 September 2010: 329 (5999), 1596-1597

  • COLTO Inc.

    It is disappointing that the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch assessment process is being disregarded by those who are campaigning to have the Ross Sea declared a marine protected area.

    The Seafood Watch assessment process follows carefully set criteria for evaluating fisheries and is comprehensive and exhaustive – as anyone who reads the full report on Chilean Seabass will see.

    Environmental groups – including many which support closing the Ross Sea – were well represented in the Seafood Watch assessment process for Chilean Seabass and had every opportunity to present evidence. By all means, continue to campaign to save the Ross Sea but trashing Seafood Watch in the process is counter-productive. The Seafood Watch objective is to evaluate the sustainability of fisheries, not campaign for marine protected areas.

  • Luis Huckstadt

    To make things even worst, the Chilean Fisheries Under-secretariat just approved, on April 24th, an increase of 500% on the catches of toothfish in Southern Chile, despite the results of the scientific assessment that labeled the Chilean stock as over-exploited. Is this what the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s SeaFood Watch is calling sustainable?

  • Victoria Metcalf

    Efforts to differentiate between seafood that is considered safe to eat on the basis of its alleged sustainability and those seafood products that clearly come from over-exploited fisheries is always to be commended. Lists such as those produced by Seafood Watch and here in New Zealand Forest and Bird’s Best Fish Guide are valuable tools in informing the public both of the threats facing the oceans and also what they personally can do to make a difference. However, recommendations must be based on the most robust science available and on the basis of transparent and demonstrable best practice from those involved in the fisheries . Others above have already identified many valid reasons why doubts might surround the classification of the Antarctic toothfish fishery as sustainable by MBA’s Seafood Watch program.

    It is true that those responsible for fishing Antarctic waters, especially New Zealand companies have gone to considerable efforts to improve theirs and other companies’ practices, particularly with respect to seabird bycatch, intensive on board research efforts in conjunction with fisheries scientists and that international moves have been made to limit IUU fishing efforts. All of this should be thoroughly applauded.

    However, those efforts still don’t make a fishery sustainable. The points that others make centre around the fact that despite years of study there is still so much we don’t know about the Ross Sea toothfish and its biology and existing models are not a proxy for actual observational data. More than that this top predator appears to play such a key role in the ecosystem and this is such a unique and high value ecosystem, that where the major gaps exist are in understanding Ross Sea ecosystem function, year round.

    Consideration of whether a fishery is sustainable or not by Seafood Watch, MSC etc needs to be done with far more consideration of ecosystem function and links than is done at present.

    The shift in status sends a confusingly erroneous message to the consumers and to those involved in the fishery itself.

    MBA has a mission to inspire conservation of the oceans. Whilst their Seafood Watch program might sit underneath that banner, clearly here with respect to Ross Sea toothfish, Seafood Watch is most definitely not waving the MBA mission flag.

  • Martin Exel

    Toothfish in the Ross Sea are sustainably managed according to scientists from 25 Nations in the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources; confirmed by independent scientists from the Marine Stewardship Council; and reconfirmed in the independent scientific review by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Program.

    Against this, advocates seeking to preserve the Ross Sea region by closing it to all fishing say we should believe otherwise (see below comments).

    I ask the advocates to please stop confusing the two issues, and please stop denigrating the fantastic work of organisations like the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Marine Stewardship Council, and CCAMLR.

    By all means advocates should promote their desire to preserve the entire region of the Ross Sea, but it’s unnecessary to undermine institutions of great reputation, along with global – leading fisheries management and conservation measures for toothfish.

    Toothfish fisheries lead the worlds fisheries in terms of mitigating seabird bycatch; in terms of establishing precautionary allowable catches which are monitored by full time scientific observers and annual review by 25 nations’ scientists; by introducing compliance measures to eliminate the very real threats of illegal fishing; and through traceability and compliance systems that are the envy of most other fisheries in the world.

    Toothfish, aka Chilean Seabass, from the Ross Sea are sustainable, healthy and delicious to eat.

    Over 60% of the Ross Sea area is already closed to fishing, and the proposal from advocates to make that 100% closure is a very different issue to sustainable management of toothfish.

    The ‘confusion’ for consumers comes not from the science and its independent reviews, but from the advocacy campaigners below.

    I urge readers to pause, reflect, and consider how CCAMLR, MSC and the Monterey Bay Aquarium scientists all came to the same conclusion on toothfish sustainability in the Ross Sea.

  • Bill Gerencer

    Allison, Please check your reference to the “Give Sword a Break Campaign.” This well intentioned program actually did nothing to bring about the rebound of sword stocks. At the onset of the campaign the stock had rebounded from 58% to 65% of MSY due to management measures implemented by ICCAT a few years prior. The stock then grew to 100% MSY the next year. The “Give Sword a Beak Campaign” did not result in any lowering of landings. So how could it bring about the rebound that quickly? It did however crash the sword price causing several US boats to leave the fishery. These boats were displaced by foreign flagged vessels who do not exercise the same sustainable practices when it comes to avoiding turtles. Total US consumption of sword did not decrease – unless you only count high end restaurants and total imports of sword fish jumped to 90%. This left the US Highly Migratory Species Division of the Office of Sustainable Fisheries and the US ICCAT Delegation battling to prevent sword quota being taken away from the US fleet and given to other countries who, in addition to putting turtles in harms way, also fish on much smaller sword fish than we do. All in all, this program was a disaster and the stock rebound it took credit for was purely coincidental.

  • Bill Gerencer

    That said – your article is well written and does show the consumer that it’s best to support fishing communities that are fishing sustainably. Furthermore it recognizes that any fishery is in a constant state of change with regard to whether the stock is healthy or not. After all – what Monterey Bay is really “selling” is credibility and constant vigilance on your part to insure the information you put forth is current and therefore accurate is part of that credibility. It would be a shame to lose that because the work you do can make a real difference.

  • DoctorsAsk

    These two species of toothfish, which both go by the market name Chilean sea bass, inhabit the frigid waters of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans near Antarctica.

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