Since October New York shoppers at Whole Foods markets have been greeted by banners proclaiming the return of certified Patagonian toothfish (Chilean bass), from the South Georgia and South Sandwich islands fishery, reports The New York Times in one of its leading stories.
Whole Foods, a chain of 187 supermarkets in the US that carries a high proportion of sustainable and organic foods, stopped selling toothfish seven years ago because a brisk rise to popularity in the 1990's led to rampant poaching and severe over-fishing and the species was said to be on its way to extinction
SGSSI fisheries is certified by the Marine Stewardship Council, an international independent environmental agency based in London, which studies fisheries to determine whether the catch is carefully monitored and controlled to prevent over-fishing and poaching. Fish from approved areas, considered sustainable, can carry its seal.
"The response has been incredible," said David Pilat, the national seafood coordinator for Whole Foods Markets. "Consumers have been pleased to be able to buy it again and that there is a good resource." He said that the stores were offering pamphlets to shoppers to explain why the sale of the fish was resumed.
These handouts extol the culinary qualities of the fish, calling it "White Gold of the Sea," and give recipes. However, they do not explain that having found one sustainable fishery in the South Atlantic does not mean that the Patagonian toothfish crisis is over.
Mr. Pilat said that if Whole Foods shoppers ask about toothfish in general, the clerks have been instructed to tell them to be sure that any they buy in other shops or in restaurants has been certified.
However other NY supermarkets such as Giant, Stop & Shop and Wild Oats, Citarella supermarkets are other chains do not sell toothfish and Wild Edibles fish markets in Manhattan do not routinely sell it either, but will order it upon request.
Gerald Leape, the vice president for marine conservation at the National Environmental Trust in Washington, the nonprofit group that started the "take a pass on Chilean sea bass (Patagonian toothfish)" campaign in 2001 among chefs, restaurants and markets nationwide, said he was concerned that the return of the fish to Whole Foods could be misread by consumers.
"They may think that all toothfish are O.K. now, and that's not true," he said. "The certified fishery accounts for only 10% of the total catch. The species is still over fished and depleted."
Peter Hoffman, the chef and owner of Savoy in SoHo, who does not serve Chilean sea bass, said Whole Foods was sending a confusing message. "It boils down to oversimplification," he said. "Sustainability is hard to understand, and now the consumer might think it applies to all toothfish. Other markets might put up similar signs, even though their fish does not come from that fishery. How many places that said they sold wild salmon actually turned out to be selling farmed once the fish were tested?"
Some of the concerns over Patagonian toothfish have been addressed in the past couple of years. At one time, it was estimated that more than two-thirds of the worldwide catch, and at least half of all the fish imported into the United States, were illegal.
Now, with much more stringent international monitoring of the fishing vessels, some experts say that the illegal trade in the fish has been reduced.
Kim Guynn, an import control officer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a division of the Department of Commerce, which monitors seafood imports into the United States, said that very few illegal fish were coming in to the US now.
"The documentation necessary to bring in the fish has been strengthened," she said. "We have the tightest controls of any country in the world. We have seized illegal shipments worth millions of dollars. We've taken away the financial incentive and the word is out that it isn't worth it. "
The agency has no statistics on the amount of illegal toothfish that still makes its way into the United States. Ms. Guynn also said that although over-fishing may be a problem, Chilean sea bass or Patagonian toothfish were never listed as endangered.
Part of the problem is that the fish, which can live for 40 or 50 years, grows very slowly, and many are caught before they reach the age of 10 or so and have had a chance to reproduce. The fish live in ice-cold seas. The high oil content of the meaty, mild-tasting flesh makes it difficult to overcook, which is why this once obscure species was taken up so ardently by both chefs and home cooks. The fish is shipped frozen and usually sold thawed at prices of about 25 US dollars a pound and up.
Fishing for toothfish is regulated by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, an international organization of 25 countries, including the United States. At its recent annual meeting, in Tasmania, the member nations adopted a proposal to refuse entry to vessels singled out for illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing for toothfish. In October, China was accepted as the newest member and did not object when four of its ships were cited for illegal fishing.
Mark Stevens, the manager of the "Take a Pass" campaign of the National Environmental Trust, said that the more stringent regulations might never have been adopted without the boycott that more than 1,000 chefs have joined. He agrees that the United States has made it much more difficult to import illegally caught fish but claims that not all members of the commission have been as aggressive in reducing contraband imports.
Eric Ripert, of Le Bernardin, another chef who participates in the boycott, said that if the fish are still disappearing at an alarming rate, no one should sell it. "I don't care if it's licensed or not," he said.
But Mike Boots, the director of Seafood Choices Alliance, a trade group that helps market sustainable seafood, said that Whole Foods has an opportunity to give consumers choices that are good for the environment. "It's important to showcase the good players, to provide a model and an incentive."
Last year, the United States, the largest market in the world for toothfish, imported 9,000 metric tons of the fish, about 10% less than in 2003, but nearly half the legal catch worldwide. Japan, which was previously the leading consumer, is now second, and imports only half as much as the United States. China is third.