Chilean sea bass (Dissostichus eleginoides), formerly known as Patagonian toothfish, are also known as Antarctic toothfish, Australian Sea Bass, Black Hake and Icefish.
Chilean sea bass are found in the Antarctic waters in the Southern Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans. This fish is typically found on the continental slope, around 2,500 meters of depth. They are a slow growing species and they do not produce as many eggs as other species (only 48,000-500,000 eggs per female each year compared to millions of eggs per year for some other species).
The onset of sexual maturity usually occurs between six and 10 years of age, but in some fish may not occur until 20 years of age. Chilean sea bass have a lifespan of 45-50 years and can grow up to 130 kg (286 lbs.). They are being captured at a rate that far exceeds their ability to replace the numbers lost to the market and thus the fishery is not sustainable.
Little more than a decade ago, the Patagonian toothfish was virtually unknown to the majority of the consumer public. Currently it is one of the most popular seafood items on menus, but it is also the biggest controversy facing the commercial seafood industry.
Scientists have been monitoring the decline of this fishery for several years as Chilean Sea Bass are being seriously over-fished, largely by pirate fishing fleets. International laws exist to protect the species from over-fishing, but these laws are ineffective and hard to enforce.
This fishery is managed by an international coalition: the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) that manages the area south of 60°S latitude. Management frameworks are in place through CCAMLR, Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay but there is a large amount of illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing exerting uncontrolled and unquantifiable pressure on the stocks.
International bodies define ‘illegal’ fishing as commercial catch that takes place at times and in places closed by fisheries management plans, ignoring approved fishing methods, catch limits, and/or conservation practices.
In addition, the practice of transshipment at sea is on the rise: toothfish are transferred from vessels of one nation to another far from any port.
Among the sightings and arrests of pirate vessels over the past year was the Taruman a Cambodian fishing vessel with a Spanish captain and largely Chilean crew was arrested by Australia in September 2005. Authorities found 143 tonnes (315,000 pounds) of illegally caught Chilean sea bass on board, valued at around $1.5 million. The crew faces fines of around $617,000. With a fine of less than half the value of the pirated catch, it’s easy to see why pirate fishers find it’s worth the risk to fish illegally for Chilean sea bass.
There are also concerns about the fishery’s catch techniques. Toothfish are taken by bottom longlines which involves bycatch of seabirds, most notably the endangered albatross, as hooks are deployed from the vessel. These birds get hooked as they try to snatch bait with the dire consequence of drowning.
The inherent vulnerability of Chilean sea bass, combined with the nature of the fishery’s bycatch and management ineffectiveness contribute to an overall seafood recommendation of ‘Avoid.’
Earlier this year, the Oceans Alive program of Environmental Defense also added a mercury advisory to its consumption advice on Chilean sea bass.
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