SCIENCE NOTES 2002 ¦ University of California, Santa Cruz Science Communication Program

The young waitress shifts her weight as she stands next to a table of four businessmen, waiting to take their order in the small, San Francisco seafood bar. "What’s in the Cioppino again," one of them asks.

Is the fish you're eating about to go extinct? Neither your waiter nor your supermarket may know for sure.

"Clams, cod, salmon, seabass -- ," she recites. The gentleman who asked the question cuts her off. Is that Chilean seabass, he asks. If it is, he’s not ordering any, he can’t believe restaurants would even think of still carrying it, doesn’t everyone know it’s almost extinct.

"Um, I don’t think it’s Chilean," she replies. He ends up choosing the dish, as does one of his associates. While walking back to ring their order into the computer, she wonders to herself where the fish is really from. She doesn’t know, but if it was endangered, her restaurant wouldn’t be allowed to serve it, right? Our seabass still sells at the same price as the salmon, she reasons. It’s probably not Chilean. If it were it would be more expensive.

More and more seafood lovers are questioning the origins of the fish they eat. The campaign "Take a Pass on Chilean Seabass" received nationwide media coverage earlier this year, as chefs from coast to coast pledged not to serve the delicate white fish. The National Environmental Trust, a Washington D.C.-based environmental group who initiated the campaign, warns that if fishing continues at current levels, the Chilean seabass, also known as a Patagonian toothfish, could be commercially extinct in five years. In other words, the few fish left in their native Antarctic waters wouldn’t be worth the time, effort and money to haul them in. This campaign follows similar efforts in past years to invoke voluntary consumer boycotts of tuna that isn’t caught with "dolphin safe" nets and overfished Atlantic swordfish.

Unfortunately for those dedicated to preserving threatened ocean species, it is a David-versus-Goliath battle.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program is one such David. Founded in 1999 in Monterey, California, the program aims to provide chefs, market owners and consumers with information about how the fish they are serving, selling and eating is caught. The program supports "sustainable fisheries — those managed so that there will be plenty of fish left for the future," says program coordinator Jennifer Dianto. "This isn’t a ban on seafood. We love seafood, we want to keep it around." Seafood Watch simply wants to teach people about the environmental consequences that may result from having a certain fish for dinner.

Researchers at Seafood Watch are slowly building a library of reports on the biology, markets, fisheries, and farm fishing practices for each creature commonly found in the seafood trade. They prepare these assessments by painstakingly poring over data from scientific papers and international sources, including the United Nations Food and Agricultural Program and National Marine Fisheries Service. Once a report is compiled on a fish, crustacean, or shellfish, Seafood Watch submits it to marine biologists for peer review. Only after receiving the specialists’ final approval is the data considered accurate.

After a report’s completion, the evaluated critter is placed on one of three lists: "Best Choices", "Proceed with Caution", or "Avoid." The team asks three questions while making its decision: do fishing levels threaten the animal with extinction? Is it fished or farmed in a way that hurts the surrounding habitat? How many other sea animals die in the fishermen’s nets or lines?

So far, the program has evaluated 44 seafood species, focusing on varieties common to California menus. Seafood Watch prints its three lists of recommendations on a wallet-sized card that concerned diners can consult in restaurants or at the grocery store. The public can request the guide for free by mail from the aquarium, or download a copy from The Seafood Watch website also includes a detailed chart explaining its listings fish by fish.

For example, Mahi-Mahi rank as a "Best Choice" because they reproduce quickly, thus maintaining their population and allowing them to withstand a lot of fishing. Chilean seabass sit on the "Avoid" list because they grow slowly and don’t replenish as quickly as they are caught. Imitation crab (or Pollock fish) is labeled as "Proceed With Caution" because some scientists believe that fishing for it takes food away from sea lions. Following Seafood Watch’s advice, the Monterey Bay Aquarium restaurant only serves fish from the "Best Choices" or "Proceed with Caution" lists.

Seafood Watch also contributes its three lists to the Seafood Choices Alliance, a clearinghouse organization where chefs, wholesalers, grocers, and fishermen can seek answers, free of charge, to questions on which fish to serve or catch at sea. The alliance can link concerned purveyors with environmentally conscious fishermen who will stock the nightly dinner specials while ensuring the restaurant or market meets its economic bottom line. "We see the Seafood Choices Alliance as the place to exchange this information and as a way to create new relationships, so that together we can restore the natural luster and abundance to our oceans," says Vikki Spruill, executive director of SeaWeb, the nonprofit group that created the alliance. It currently boasts over 200 subscribers.

While Seafood Watch followers aim to do the right thing, it’s still easy for card-carrying consumers to get confused about what to order. For example, wild Alaskan salmon are a "Best Choice," because the industry that hauls them in is well-regulated, and because the fish reproduce quickly. But farm-raised salmon are a choice to avoid because their ocean pens pollute the water with disease-carrying feces. Shrimp and prawns get the "Proceed with Caution" yellow light if they were netted in U.S. waters, because American fisherman use devices on their nets that allow endangered sea turtles to escape, but not enough research has been done to determine how many other animals still die. Farmed shrimp or those caught internationally are red-flagged, because shrimp farming destroys mangrove trees where wild fish eat and breed and fishermen from other countries don’t all promise that sea turtles can escape from their shrimp nets. Wild Caspian sturgeon, the traditional source of caviar, stays in the "Avoid" category because it is overfished. Yet caviar from U.S. farm-raised sturgeon is a "Best Choice."

For most consumers, such distinctions are bewildering to decipher. If a waiter can’t help or the grocery package doesn’t say, it’s tough for the average seafood lover to tell the difference between wild and farm-raised salmon, and nearly impossible to find out if a shrimp was caught in U.S. or international waters. And if a wealthy friend at the table orders caviar to go with the champagne, is it rude to question the gift?

Despite the confusion, Seafood Watch’s advice is still making an impact. Card-carrying diners called attention to Chilean seabass served in Yosemite National Park restaurants last fall, and as a result the fish was removed from menus at all Yosemite properties. Amfac Parks and Resorts, the concessionaire that provides food services for Yellowstone, Grand Canyon and the Everglades national parks, pulled not only Chilean seabass but also Atlantic swordfish, shark and bluefin tuna from its tables because Seafood Watch recommended doing so.

However, the popular practice of changing or even making up a fish’s common name threatens Seafood Watch’s success. There are no government or industry regulations as to what a market name must be for any species. "Most people don’t know what escolar is, so we call it Mexican seabass," says Mario Uribe of LusAmerica Foods, Inc., a seafood distribution company in San Jose, California. LusAmerica supplies fish to grocery stores such as Safeway, Nob Hill, and Pack and Save. But the escolar Uribe refers to is not from Mexico — it’s from Alaska.

At Casa Blanca restaurant in Santa Cruz, California, a waiter informed his table that the "butterfish" entrée on the menu was a reef fish caught off the coast of Hawaii. According to Seafood Watch, butterfish is a California species to avoid, but Casa Blanca orders it from the Hawaiian Fish Company. So does the entrée get a red light or not? To investigate further, this reporter visited a website at, a global information system that claims to track "practically all fish species known to science." FishBase is a non-profit research organization working with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. A search of its online database for "butterfish" spits out a list of 30 different species from 26 countries — all referred to as butterfish. If FishBase’s numbers are accurate, both Seafood Watch and the Casa Blanca waiter could be telling the truth — which may cause some to doubt Seafood Watch’s credibility as a reliable source.

With so many exotic-sounding species hitting the market, it’s easy to understand why fishermen and purveyors often classify them under a common label. If it’s a white, flaky fillet, shoppers will recognize it as seabass. They won’t identify with Lates calcarifer or Centrarchops chapini, the Latin names for two of the 21 FishBase-listed seabass species.

The debate over names is one reason why Matt Derrick, manager of Asia SF restaurant in San Francisco, keeps serving Chilean seabass. "If you’ve got a warehouse full of fish, you’ll call it whatever you can to sell it," he says, questioning whether the Chilean seabass on his dinner menu is really Chilean at all. He also wonders if other restaurants serve the threatened fish unknowingly, as suppliers get rid of stock they accumulated before the voluntary boycott began. "Overfishing is a myth, like global warming," Derrick adds. "The guys at the fish house say, Look, the Chilean seabass is fine." He believes that since fishermen make their living off the ocean, they know it more intimately than researchers in a lab do. So he continues to serve Chilean seabass–assuming that’s what it really is.

Derrick’s view embodies the current controversy between scientists and fishermen over what’s going on at sea. In the Monterey Bay area, Frank Ealy, commercial fisherman and owner of Santa Cruz Boat Rentals and Capitola Boat and Bait, is one seaman quarreling with the researchers. "I was born and raised here, I know the fish come and go all the time," he says. "We’ll have no fish for a couple of years, and all of a sudden they’re back." Ealy and fellow commercial fisherman Todd Fraser, owner of Bayside Marine Commercial Fisherman’s Supply,

are especially irate because rockfish and lingcod, two locally-caught favorites, are now under strict fishing limits based on data which they believe is inaccurate. "The scientists go up into Bodega Bay"–140 miles north of Santa Cruz–"and take one study from one party boat, and use it as data for the whole coast," Fraser says. Seafood Watch lists both rockfish and lingcod as fish to avoid.

But Joan Roughgarden, a marine ecologist at Stanford University who studies fish populations along the California coast, stands by her colleagues’ recommendations for the two species. "If this fishery collapses, I don’t want them to come to me and say I gave them too low a number."

For many concerned consumers, a Seafood Watch card still doesn’t provide the confidence to choose an environmentally friendly fish dish. But the Marine Stewardship Council — a partnership between the World Wildlife Federation and Unilever, the world’s largest buyer of seafood — is stepping up to help. The council began issuing "Ecolabels" in 1999 to verify that a fish was caught by a sustainable fishery. Wild Alaskan salmon was one of the first to receive the label, which is easily located on certified fish products like stickers are on organic fruit. The council hopes to eventually classify every seafood product in a supermarket, but it will be years before all fisheries are analyzed.

Until Ecolabels are commonplace, researchers at Seafood Watch say that consulting their card or a similar guide, such as The Audubon Guide to Seafood (available at, is the best way for seafood lovers to choose their meals responsibly. "I’ll remember the Chilean seabass thing now," says Alexandra Dumas, 23, a Santa Cruz resident and occasional seafood eater. "If I see it I won’t get it."

The program is now expanding its recommendations to include popular East Coast varieties, and will release an East Coast version of its card this summer. It is also collaborating with aquariums, museums, and zoos nationwide to create guides for six other regions. "We’re trying to keep the message positive," says Seafood Watch coordinator Dianto. "Consumers have an awful lot of influence. What we buy drives what they catch."