Chilean Sea Bass: It's baaaack!
A delicious but troublesome fish, on menus again
I’ve fallen off the wagon, and there’s no turning back. For nearly 10 years, I’ve abstained from eating Chilean sea bass. But I recently started up again. It’s so damn delicious! I’d forgotten how uniquely buttery this fish can be. There’s simply nothing else quite like it.
Back in 2002, more than 100 restaurants in Los Angeles banded together and stopped serving Chilean sea bass. Chefs across the country followed suit. Most top chefs in L.A. still wont touch it. However, the tide seems to be turning. I’ve suddenly been spotting it again on menus around the world.
The first place I fell off the wagon was at Piaf in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. Piaf is one of the greatest French restaurants in Latin America. I hadn’t bothered to look at the menu. Rather, I simply asked the chef to cook for me. So when I was presented with Chilean sea bass, I hesitated, conflicted. Then I took a bite. My head spun. I couldn’t put down my fork. The fish practically leapt into my mouth on its own. I couldn’t do anything to stop it.
Last month, still haunted by the Chilean sea bass at Piaf, I found myself in Mumbai, dining at celebrity chef Morimoto’s restaurant, Wasabi. Again, without really looking at the menu, I ordered omakasi—and before I knew it, another morsel of Chilean sea bass was dripping from my quivering lips. “I’m in India,” I told myself as a way of excusing the transgression. “Different rules apply here.”
After returning from India in May, I spent a week in Las Vegas. My first stop: Jean Georges Steakhouse at ARIA. I was there to eat steak, of which I ate plenty. But I also partook in one of the best pieces of fish I’ve eaten in years. Yep, Chilean sea bass. A quick glance at menus up and down The Strip, I spotted Chilean sea bass on a dozen different menus.
The fish isn’t actually endangered. Technically, it never was. The problem with the Patagonian Toothfish or Antarctic Toothfish, as it was known before it underwent a branding makeover, stemmed from illegal fishing in the Antarctic, which makes it difficult to effectively gauge and manage the natural resource. While an estimated 16,000 tons of Chilean sea bass is harvested legally and sustainably every year in the Antarctic, there might be twice that much fished illegally. These illegal catches have indeed depleted some populations of the fish. Another troubling aspect is the way in which sea bass is caught: using unmodified bottom longlines, which hook and drown thousands of seabirds each year, most notably the endangered albatross. This is still a problem.
But for what it’s worth, the U.S. State Department has adopted a measure requiring all imports of Chilean sea bass to be accompanied by a document verifying that the fish were caught legally. According to the State Department, “U.S. Customs and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association Fisheries regulations do not allow Chilean sea bass imports without this document and a valid dealer permit issued by NOAA.”
So, theoretically, Chilean sea bass sold in the U.S. should come with an official Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification. (Chefs should always ask for this when purchasing Chilean sea bass.) But because a lot of illegally harvested Chilean sea bass still enters the United States, the influential Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program still gives the fish a rating of “avoid” while at the same time acknowledging that some sources are indeed safe, legal and sustainable.
I’m going to assume the chefs at the restaurants where I’ve recently found and eaten Chilean sea bass have asked the tough questions and determined that their suppliers fall into that latter category. Robert Moore, executive chef at Jean Georges Steakhouse in Las Vegas, for one, assures me that his Chilean sea bass is sustainably farm-raised.
Still, I feel somewhat conflicted, consumed with guilt, yet titillated and hungry for more.