The Rise and Fall of the Chilean Sea Bass
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Now for a story about a fish, a very ugly fish with big bulging eyes and little pointy teeth which, nonetheless, became the darling of high-end restaurants and their foodie customers. The Chilean sea bass, for years a pricey menu item, it's become a cause célèbre with the chefs who made the fish famous now backing a campaign to save it. And in the book Hooked: Pirates, Poaching, and the Perfect Fish, author Bruce Knecht spins a high seas adventure out of how this particular fish went from delectable to depleted.
Mr. BRUCE KNECHT (Author, Hooked: Pirates, Poaching, and the Perfect Fish): This is a fish who lives in the water close to a mile deep, lives for 50 years; it can grow to 100 pounds. One of the problems is that it develops rather slowly, so it doesn't reach the point at which it can reproduce itself until it's 12 or 13. It's a fish that doesn't really go any place, which is to say it stays in its habitat its entire life. And those things sort of combined to make it particularly vulnerable. Because if you, Mr. Fisherman, discover where this habitat is and you start fishing with, say, 15,000 baited hooks at a time, you're going to be catching 10, 20 tons of fish a day, which becomes something like strip mining.
MONTAGNE: As you write, there's a reason that this fish came to the attention of the world and that is that fishermen started fishing with very deep, long lines.
Mr. KNECHT: Yeah, they were first discovered off of Chile, and one of the characters in the book is a guy named Lee Lance(ph), who was the first person who thought this fish might have a future. He was a fish importer, a fish merchant, but he was different from most merchants in that he was willing to go to foreign markets to look for something new.
MONTAGNE: You tell a wonderful version of this. He's sort of walking along, passing by all the familiar fish, and he spots this huge fish and he was told that it was called…
Mr. KNECHT: Cod of the deep.
MONTAGNE: And its other common name was?
Mr. KNECHT: Patagonia tooth fish, which, you know, that is still the name of the fish according to the U.S. government. Lee Lance knew that wasn't going to fly, so he came up with something different.
MONTAGNE: Something more attractive. And so he racked his brains, right? And he thought, how about bass, even though it wasn't a bass
Mr. KNECHT: It wasn't a bass.
MONTAGNE: And in the end?
Mr. KNECHT: It's not a sea bass, it's still not a sea bass, but he knew that that's a name that has some resonance. That's something that Americans like. We like white-fleshed fish that's not too fishy.
MONTAGNE: As you write it, it didn't become popular immediately. But under the name Chilean sea bass, it ultimately became a huge hit in restaurants.
Mr. KNECHT: It was, as you say, a slow start. You know, he was selling it -this is back in the late 1970s for a dollar, a dollar a quarter a pound, which will strike people listening as kind of amazing given that, you know, today you will find it in a fish store it's, you know, $22, $24 a pound. But even at a dollar, dollar a quarter, nobody really wanted it until he finally found someone in Los Angeles that was willing to use it for frozen fish fingers.
MONTAGNE: Fish fingers does suggest one key to why Chilean sea bass became popular with higher-end chefs. It was bland and didn't get in the way of a fancy new sauce. Bruce Knecht writes that it only took a few years for the fish to virtually disappear off Chile, a couple more to decimate the population off Argentina, and then fisherman moved on to South Africa and Australia. It was in Australia's sub-Antarctic territorial waters that the story of a modern day pirate ship begins.
On one icy day in 2003, an Australian patrol boat spotted a rouge fishing vessel. The apparent poachers quickly took off and the patrol boat gave chase. And this is pretty astonishing what they went through over the next few weeks. Can you take one moment of that time and describe it to us?
Mr. KNECHT: Well, the first thing they entered was 40-foot seas, hurricane-force winds, and that means that these ships - they're large vessels, but they're going up and down like seesaws; it was difficult conditions. But then it really gets worse because, as they approach Antarctica, the temperatures of course plummet and then they find themselves in a sea of icebergs. At one point, the patrol boat turned on the radar and discovered that within 24 miles there were 72 icebergs.
And if you're traveling at top speed and you're doing that at night, you can't see the ice. And if you were to hit one of these, you'll be in a lot of trouble. And the nearest place where assistance could come from is 12, 14 days away.
MONTAGNE: Why did the vessel, the pirate vessel, keep going? I mean, I realize it was being chased by Australian authorities, but it was so difficult and so dangerous what it was doing, was it worth it?
Mr. KNECHT: Well, if they were caught - which ultimately did happen after 4,000 miles and three weeks in what might be the longest chase in maritime history -what they knew would happen would be that the vessel would be brought back to Australia and they would be forced to be prosecuted, the vessel would be seized. They had about 100 tons at that point - well, that's worth a million dollars. And their careers were on the line.
MONTAGNE: Although it would seem like their lives were on the line in allowing this chase to go on.
Mr. KNECHT: Absolutely. And, you know, there was a difference between the officers and the members of the crew. Members of the crew are paid, you know, $800 to $1,000 a month. They work around the clock; they're the ones that bait these 15,000 hooks every time they throw the line over the side. But then on the other end, you have the fishing master. On a fishing vessel like this it's really - the fishing master calls the shots and the captain becomes sort of like a truck driver, a bus driver who goes where he's told. The fishing master is paid like an owner. He would get $150,000 if it's $3 million worth of fish. Not bad for three months work.
MONTAGNE: In the end, a South African boat joined the Australians and they apprehended the pirate ship. Its fishing master turned out to be one of the most successful tooth fish hunters ever, a Spaniard by the name of Antonio Perez who descended from generations of fishermen. And after two juries failed to convict him of poaching, Perez went straight back to chasing the tooth fish.
Mr. KNECHT: I received an e-mail from him not so long ago and he was telling me that he was going fishing again. He has a new vessel.
MONTAGNE: Doesn't he believe, though, that fish are disappearing?
Mr. KNECHT: Now, what he would tell you is, if this fish is in trouble, you know, it doesn't really matter because there's always another species that will come along. But one of the arguments I make in Hooked is that it's no longer true. We have explored pretty much everywhere when it comes to fish and it seems highly unlikely to me - and, of course, the scientists that I've talked to - that we're going to find a fish that's both attractive to humans and exists in large numbers that we haven't come across before. We really are at the end of the line.
MONTAGNE: Bruce Knecht, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. KNECHT: Thanks. Good to be here.
MONTAGNE: Bruce Knecht is author of Hooked: Pirates, Poaching, and the Perfect Fish.
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MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
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