11th June 2013: Top species – Chilean Sea Bass

The decision by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program to upgrade the status of some Chilean sea bass (Dissostichus eleginoides) fisheries, and Antarctic toothfish (Dissostichus mawsoni) from avoid to best choice or good alternative has buoyed the spirits of those who have long dealt with this species, and see opportunities for expanding sales of the fish, also known as Patagonian toothfish.

“This has been a very special year,” says Michael DellaGrotta, president of Kendell Seafood Imports, and one of the three U.S. companies that is an associate member of the Coalition of Legal Toothfish Operators (COLTO). “It has been a banner year for the legality, traceability and acceptance of this species.”

In April, Seafood Watch announced its new rating, moving several Chilean sea bass fisheries off the avoid list. In a prepared statement at the time, Tom Pickerell, senior science manager at Seafood Watch, said the assessment took almost a year. “While some may consider a recommendation to buy toothfish somewhat controversial, we are confident in our analyses and the industry has demonstrated that it is possible to harvest this species in a responsible manner,” said Pickerell.

According to COLTO, 80 percent of the total allowable catch (TAC) for 2012/2013 is caught by COLTO members on 40 vessels. The TAC for that period is 24,789 metric tons (MT). Chilean sea bass is harvested from the cold waters around Australia, Chile, South Africa and Argentina. Part of the fishery is managed by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) with the rest, accounting for 9,430 MT of the TAC, outside the CCAMLR area.

At the same time that Seafood Watch was making its announcement, the South African government was putting two islands in the Indian Ocean under offshore marine protected status to help the toothfish population there to recover. The status includes a ban on fishing within 12 nautical miles of the Prince Edward and Marion islands, with limited fishing in specified zones beyond that radius. Those islands fall within the CCAMLR region and account for 320 MT of the TAC.

In making the upgrade on the Seafood Watch list, DellaGrotta says, “It goes to show that there’s a healthy and vibrant biomass in those areas.” He also notes that the industry has been actively working to eliminate illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing by monitoring where the CCAMLR boats are going at all times.

The outcome, he says, has been improved demand. “Lots of restaurant groups are looking to put sea bass back on the menu,” he says. “That whole ‘Take a pass on sea bass’ movement has faltered,” he adds, referring to the 2001 National Environmental Trust campaign that asked chefs to remove the fish from their menus.

The fish has always been attractive to white-tablecloth restaurants, he says, but now mid-level chains are putting it on their menus as well.

Barry Markman, owner of Mark Foods in New York, says with 65 percent of the fisheries now considered a best choice or a good alternative and 40 percent of the Chilean sea bass fisheries being Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)-certified, demand is increasing.

Chilean sea bass is popular with both restaurants and retailers, he says. “Anytime anyone eats it, they like it,” he says.

DellaGrotta says Chilean sea bass wholesalers are still developing markets for it in the United States. The fish has its own “antifreeze system,” he says, provided by its oily, dense texture that imparts a savory flavor.

“It’s very versatile,” he says, adding it gives diners “the satisfaction of red meat.”

At Rex’s Fresh Seafood, a restaurant and seafood market in Dallas, owner Rex Bellomy says the fish that people once labeled as “going extinct and overfished” is as popular as ever, coming in as the No. 3 seller in his market.

“It’s one of the tastiest fish in the ocean,” says Bellomy. “It’s an absolutely delicious fish.” Because it is so oily, Bellomy says it may not agree with everyone, but he counts it as second only to salmon for flavor.

Bellomy hasn’t received much feedback yet from customers regarding the fish’s improved Seafood Watch status, “but only so many people follow Monterey Bay. It takes a while for word to spread,” he says.

What he has seen is an improvement in price. About a year and a half ago, he says, “prices got outrageous” because of the demand from Japan and China. But that has eased off, he says, bringing his retail price to about $26 a pound. And on his dinner menu, Bellomy offers Chilean sea bass with ginger miso as a $29 entrée.

Matt Mixter, who deals in Chilean sea bass in his sales and purchasing position at Mazzetta Co. in Highland Park, Ill., has seen an interest from buyers now that the majority of the fish has been moved off Seafood Watch’s avoid list.

“It’s gone from being the poster child of unsustainable fishing to a great example of how industry and science can work together to achieve unprecedented results,” says Mixter. Even though Mazzetta has always sourced from the CCAMLR area and done its due diligence to ensure it’s sourcing from well-managed fisheries, major retail and foodservice buyers need the protection provided by MSC and Seafood Watch designations to make the change, he says.

“So when MSC certifies or Seafood Watch upgrades a fishery based on their own research, it rightfully enables us to get product on the shelf,” says Mixter. “It’s all about educating consumers with up-to-date, factual information on the incredible progress the industry has made in dramatically reducing illegal fishing and bycatch levels and enforcing healthy quota management systems,” says Mixter. “COLTO has been the driving force behind this movement by communicating our message to the public and consumer-focused sustainability programs.”

Both pricing and supply have been stable, says Markman, who notes that demand in Asia is the most likely factor to influence pricing. Asia takes about 50 percent of the catch, he says.

Mixter has also seen relatively stable pricing over the past 12 months, with fish selling in the high-$8 to mid-$10 range, depending on size. “It’s a special fish. And we will do everything in our power to ensure it’s around for generations to come. We have every incentive in the world to do so,” he says.

There has been no inventory building with the supply and demand for sea bass, adds DellaGrotta, who says prices have stayed in the $10 range.

Chilean sea bass is still quite a complicated species to deal with, says DellaGrotta, with extra paperwork and regulation associated with its procurement. Kendell bar-codes each fish, so they can trace when and where it was caught.

“There was a time when we considered not importing it,” he says, but all the negatives associated with it “are metamorphosing into something positive.”

By Joanne Friedrick, SeafoodBusiness.com