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"FISH Leap On, Off menu: Consumers, Restaurants Asked to Pay Heed to Warnings of Threatened Ocean Species"
By Kristen Browning-Blas
Denver Post
February 20, 2002

First they tell us to eat more fish because it can help lower cholesterol. But only certain fish, they add, because some species contain mercury and other pollutants.

Now consumers are being asked to factor in environmental and political concerns, too, much the way they were asked in past years to boycott tuna that was harvested along with dolphins, and swordfish that were fished nearly to extinction.

Earlier this month, the National Environmental Trust called for a boycott of Chilean sea bass (the commercial name for Patagonian and Antarctic toothfish) in an effort to save the species from extinction, says Andrea Kavanagh of the trust. The "Take a Pass on Chilean Sea Bass" campaign asks chefs and home cooks to stop buying the fish, Bon Appetit's "2001 Dish of the Year," until the international body that regulates Antarctic waters can put an end to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

The southern ocean is governed by the Convention for Conservation of Antarctic Marine Resources, a group of 23 nations whose members voluntarily abide by its rules, but boats from other nations also fish its waters, often without following those rules.

"It's impossible to police the waters around Antarctica - it's 10 percent of the earth's surface," says Kavanagh.

When researchers began studying Chilean sea bass 20 years ago, on average they were 5 feet long, weighed more than 150 pounds and lived up to 80 years, says Kavanagh. Now the average catch is less than 2 feet long and less than 10 pounds.

"They're catching the babies," she says. "They have to live to 8 years before they can reproduce, so we're decimating the population."

Scientists say harvesting such large amounts also damages the ecosystem. The frigid, deep waters offer few protein sources for killer whales, sperm whales and seals, which feed on the toothfish. "For every plate of Chilean sea bass that we eat, we're taking it out of mouths of whales," says Kavanagh.

In addition, more than 100,000 albatrosses and petrels have been killed trying to snag the bait off the long lines used to catch toothfish, says Kavanagh.

In response to the campaign, 65 San Francisco Bay Area restaurants removed Chilean sea bass from their menus in February. The campaign plans to spread its message to restaurants in New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., in the coming months.

In Colorado, Paul Wade, executive chef at Montagna in Aspen, took the fish off his menu a year ago, along with all the caviars from the Caspian Sea.

"I was raked through the coals," he says. "I took so much flak from the town of Aspen, but now there's an awareness of the fact that we do need to be responsible for wild foodstuffs."

Chef Approved

Various groups have issued lists of 'good' and 'bad' seafood. The Chefs Collaborative, which promotes sustainable cuisine, says the following seafood is abundant and well-managed:  

*Dungeness crab
*Alaskan halibut
*Alaskan salmon: "If you get king salmon from Alaska, you are helping an Alaskan family survive,' says fisherman Bob Storrs.
*Trap-caught spot prawns
*Pacific sardines
*Alaskan black cod (sablefish)
*Troll-caught albacore tuna
*Pacific squid
*Farmed rainbow trout
*Farmed sturgeon
*Spanish and Atlantic
*Farmed and wild crawfish
*Striped bass
*Stone crab

For more information:

-Monterey Bay Aquarium
-Environmental Defense
-Seafood Choices Alliance
-Audubon Society Living Oceans Program
-National Fisheries Institute

- Kristen Browning-Blas


Cherry Creek Whole Foods seafood team leader Mark Walz agrees. "We don't support selling Chilean sea bass because its numbers keep dwindling," he says. "Our biggest concern is sustainability." Restaurants run by Amfac in national parks also do not serve Chilean sea bass, Atlantic swordfish, shark or bluefin tuna.

Although chefs and natural food markets are taking the lead, campaign organizers hope that consumers will fuel the protest, as they did with tuna and swordfish. But how does the average person keep track of what's in and out of favor?

"If you just care about what's in your fish taco, start by asking where it came from," advises Alaskan fisherman Bob Storrs, who was in Colorado recently to raise awareness of fishery management.

Fish are the last food resource hunted by humans, say environmental groups. They are not owned like cattle or poultry and must be managed in a global manner. "You don't take all of the cows off the ranch and expect to have calves next year," explains Storrs.

"Out in the oceans, it's really the world's last wild buffalo hunt," says Henry Lovejoy, whose New Hampshire company, EcoFish, provides ecologically sustainable seafood to natural foods stores and restaurants, including La Petite Maison in Colorado Springs and Mountain Naturals in Aspen.

The Audubon Society, Environmental Defense, the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Natural Resources Defence Council have published lists of best and worst seafood, but the fishing industry takes issue with any kind of list-making, saying that it's too general and will harm those who practice environmentally sound fishing.

The Seafood Choices Alliance helps chefs and consumers make sense of the lists with a chart on its website (www.seafoodchoices.com/seasense) that compares all the lists by species, with suggestions for alternative fish and recipes.

The fishing industry and environmentalists have long been on opposite sides of the debate about how best to protect our oceans and fisheries. But a coalition of fishermen, recreational and environmental groups, called the Marine Fish Conservation Network, are finding they share a common goal: to preserve the livelihood of fishermen and ensure they have something to catch.

The coalition is rallying support for a bill that calls for greater conservation, stricter law enforcement and management of ocean ecosystems.

Like any other business, the fishing industry will respond to consumer demands. "Consumers are bringing pressure to bear, especially in the natural-food stores," says Lovejoy. "This is what's going to help make our fisheries sustainable."

Environmentalist Kavanagh puts it simply: "I've had Chilean sea bass. I think it's delicious. I want to eat it in the future."

Kristen Browning-Blas is The Denver Post food editor. You can e-mail her at [email protected].

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