IN RECENT years, increasing numbers of restaurants in the United States and elsewhere have been offering the savory delights of exotic fish from around the world. Many of these fish are the product of overfishing and poaching practices that put entire species at grave risk. Order one of these as an entree, and you're not the only one who will be paying a steep price.
The Patagonian Toothfish, more commonly referred to as Chilean Sea Bass in the United States, is a prime example of how a fish species can suffer when it becomes the latest delicacy. Under an Antarctic conservation treaty signed by the United States and 22 other nations in the early 1980s, the total of allowable annual catch for Chilean Sea Bass is about 19,000 metric tons.
In 1997-98, worldwide trade in this species, which is concentrated in the Southern Ocean around Antarctica, was nearly 2.5 times that amount, or roughly 49,000 tons, a level that recent studies indicate is unsustainable.
The Chilean Sea Bass is a remarkable species that can live more than 50 years and grow to a length of 6 feet. A slow-growing species, it takes as long as 12 to 16 years to reach sexual maturity, which makes it significantly more vulnerable to overfishing than faster-maturing fish. Not only is the species declining in number, but also those that are caught are smaller, a clear indication that there are fewer numbers of mature fish left to sustain the population.
Scientists now estimate that Chilean Sea Bass could be virtually wiped out in just three to five years, if poaching and overfishing continue at today's pace.
Moreover, the decimation of this one species will inevitably affect the fate of others. Among the denizens of the Southern Ocean that are known to feed on Chilean Sea Bass are the sperm whale and the elephant seal, whose fish diet is believed to consist almost entirely of this one species.
Vessels from many countries, including the United States, are suspected of illegally catching Chilean Sea Bass, although fishing companies in Spain, Japan and Norway are believed to be the most prominent offenders. Often, the poachers deliberately try to avoid detection by flying the flags of countries that are not signatories of the 23-member Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR). Others disguise themselves as container vessels or fly no flags at all.
Making matters worse, poachers flout international rules designed to prevent the killing of sea birds such as albatrosses and petrels, which are hooked and drowned after swallowing the baited hooks that extend for miles behind "longline" fishing vessels. CCAMLR has adopted a set of mitigation measures designed to protect sea birds, but these are largely ignored by poachers. It is estimated that 100,000 sea birds are killed each year by these illegal vessels -- 100 times more than the legal fishery.
What must be done to protect the Chilean Sea Bass, sea birds and other Antarctic wildlife? When domestic fisheries are endangered because of overfishing, it is relatively easy for an individual government to take action, provided the political will exists to impose new restrictions on destructive fishing activity. But the solution becomes significantly more complex in international waters.
To help protect this fish, the CCAMLR nations have agreed to require new satellite-guided vessel monitoring systems that will enable governments to track all legal fishing vessels operating in much of the Southern Ocean.
But the requirement won't take effect until the end of 2000 and will only affect legal fishing. Among the various steps that governments need to take now to restrict poaching and overfishing are: denying port access to illegal fishing vessels; improving monitoring of the trade in Chilean Sea Bass; and instituting a certificate system to validate the origin and legality of all imports and exports of these fish.
Sadly, the Chilean Sea Bass is only one of a host of fish species that are in trouble. According to the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization, 16 percent of the world's fisheries are overfished, another 6 percent are depleted and a remarkable 44 percent are "fully exploited," meaning they are producing the largest catch they can. With the demand for fish sure to rise as global population grows by a projected 3.2 billion between 2000 and 2050, it's clear that something must be done to protect the Patagonian Toothfish and other species.
For the most part, the fate of the world's fisheries will be determined by governments that must act to reduce overfishing and the destruction of the essential habitat on which fish depend.
Consumers who care about what happens to the sea and the creatures it contains, can also play a role. The next time a waiter encourages you to try the Chilean Sea Bass, you might consider saying "no." Because no matter how you order it, theres a good chance it will be poached.
Joshua S. Reichert is director of the environmental program of the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Pub Date: 7/20/99