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Seafood FAQ: What to consider when buying Chilean sea bass

Recent landings indicate that efforts to curb poaching for 'white gold' are working

The Royal Australian Navy busts the Maya V. for poaching toothfish on Jan. 23, 2004 - The Coalition of Legal Toothfish Operators
Steven Hedlund
January 01, 2005

Perhaps no fish grew faster in popularity among American chefs and retailers in the 1990s than Chilean sea bass, which is prized for its rich, melt-in-your-mouth flavor and large, thick flakes. U.S. importers bring in more than $100 million of Chilean sea bass, or Patagonian toothfish, annually. The fish is so valuable that pirates call it “white gold.”

In recent years, overfishing and poaching concerns have dogged the Antarctic fishery, prompting some chefs and retailers to stop selling the slow-growing fish. However, the U.S. government says international efforts to curb poaching are working. Here’s what to consider when buying Chilean sea bass.

Q. Is Chilean sea bass endangered?
No. Chilean sea bass is not listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

Q. Is the Chilean sea bass fishery regulated?
Yes. The toothfish fishery is managed in the Exclusive Economic Zone by participating countries and beyond the EEZ by the 25-nation Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Re­sources, of which the United States is a member.

All toothfish shipments are required to carry catch documents confirming the fish was legally harvested. U.S. importers must provide the National Marine Fisheries Service with catch documents and receive approval from the agency 16 days before an incoming toothfish shipment of more than 4,400 pounds arrives at port.

The United States intends to pass legislation by mid-2005 requiring that all toothfish shipments carry electronic catch documents, says NMFS spokeswoman Susan Buchanan.

At its 23rd annual meeting in Hobart, Tasmania, from Oct. 25 to Nov. 5, CCAMLR adopted a measure requiring that all toothfish vessels fishing in the EEZ and CCAMLR area use a centralized vessel-monitoring system, reporting landings and location to their home country every four hours. The data is then relayed to CCAMLR. Vessel-monitoring systems have been mandatory since 2001, but previously the data was transmitted to numerous sources, making it difficult for CCAMLR to collect and easier for vessels to tamper with.

Q. How much Chilean sea bass is harvested annually?
Inside the CCAMLR area, toothfish landings totaled 13,307 metric tons in the 2003-04 fishing year, which runs from July 1 to June 30. That’s down from 18,507 metric tons in 2002-03. CCAMLR set its 2004-05 toothfish quota at 14,953 metric tons. Outside the CCAMLR area, which includes the high seas, toothfish landings hit 10,966 metric tons in 2003-04, down from 24,137 metric tons in 2002-03. (Some countries’ EEZs are located inside the CCAMLR area, others outside.)

The United States, the world’s second-largest market for Chilean sea bass, behind Japan, imports roughly 20 percent of the global toothfish catch, according to NMFS.

After rising steadily for a number of years, U.S. toothfish imports peaked at 11,732 metric tons in 2001 and leveled off at 11,302 metric tons in 2002 and 10,551 metric tons in 2003. Through September, toothfish imports were down less than 1 percent, to 7,414 metric tons, from the same nine-month period in 2003.

Q. Are efforts to curb poaching working?
“Yes, they appear to be working,” says Martin Excel, spokesman for the Coalition of Legal Toothfish Operators, an Australia-based group of boat owners representing more than half of the globe’s annual toothfish catch. “Over the last 12 months, the amount of [illegal] product on the markets in Japan and the United States has dropped considerably as a result of less IUU [illegal, unreported and unregulated] fishing

IUU fishing inside the CCAMLR area fell 75 percent, to 2,622 metric tons, from 2002-03 to 2003-04. In 1996-97, IUU fishing exceeded 40,000 metric tons. In high-seas areas 51 and 57 in the southern Indian Ocean, IUU fishing plunged 97 percent, to 128 metric tons in 2003-04. Pirates were suspected of catching toothfish illegally inside the CCAMLR area and claiming it was from areas 51 and 57, where toothfish doesn’t exist in harvestable quantities. So in 2003, NMFS banned toothfish imports from areas 51 and 57.

NMFS Director Dr. Bill Hogarth attributes the decline to his agency’s “aggressive” efforts to keep illegally harvested Chilean sea bass from entering the U.S. market and to the success of CCAMLR’s catch-documentation scheme.

However, the National Environ­mental Trust, the Washington, D.C., group that’s asking chefs and retailers nationwide to boycott the fish as part of its “Take a Pass on Chilean Sea Bass” campaign, says there’s more illegally harvested product on the U.S. market than the government thinks.

According to a report NET released on Sept. 20, Customs failed to report at least 579 metric tons of mislabeled and co-mingled toothfish imports between December 2002 and June 2003. NET says it uncovered the discrepancy after comparing figures from a commercial database called PIERS (Port Import Export Report Service) with figures from Customs, which reported toothfish imports of 3,903 metric tons during the seven-month period.

NMFS says the PIERS figures are “unreliable and outdated.”

Q. What can I do to ensure the Chilean sea bass I buy is legally harvested?

“Know your suppliers,” says NMFS’s Buchanan. “Make sure they have import permits, and make sure they show you catch documents. If they can’t, assume that something isn’t right. You need to put pressure on them.”

Q. Where can I find more information on Chilean sea bass?
A pamphlet of 10 frequently asked questions created by the Commerce and State departments is available online at www.nmfs.noaa.gov/trade/chile.pdf.A pamphlet produced by NMFS's Toothfish Import Monitoring Program is also available online at www.nmfs.noaa.gov/sfa/sfweb/nsil/toothfish%20brochure.pdf.

COLTO, which offers awards of up to $10,000 for information leading to the conviction of poachers, publishes a "black list" of suspected and convicted poachers, available online at www.colto.org/vessels.htm.

January 2005 - SeaFood Business

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