"Clams, cod, salmon, seabass -- ," she
recites. The gentleman who asked the question cuts her
off. Is that Chilean seabass, he asks. If it is,
hes not ordering any, he cant believe
restaurants would even think of still carrying it,
doesnt everyone know its almost extinct.
"Um, I dont think its 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 doesnt know, but if it was
endangered, her restaurant wouldnt be allowed to
serve it, right? Our seabass still sells at the same price
as the salmon, she reasons. Its 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 wouldnt 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 isnt caught with
"dolphin safe" nets and overfished Atlantic
Unfortunately for those dedicated to preserving
threatened ocean species, it is a David-versus-Goliath
The Monterey Bay Aquariums 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
isnt 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
After a reports 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
fishermens 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 www.montereybayaquarium.org.
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 dont 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
Watchs 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,
its 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 dont 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 cant help or the grocery
package doesnt say, its 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 Watchs 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 fishs common name threatens Seafood Watchs
success. There are no government or industry regulations as
to what a market name must be for any species. "Most people
dont 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 its 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 www.fishbase.org, 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 FishBases numbers
are accurate, both Seafood Watch and the Casa Blanca waiter could be
telling the truth which may cause some to doubt
Seafood Watchs credibility as a reliable source.
With so many exotic-sounding species hitting the market,
its easy to understand why fishermen and purveyors
often classify them under a common label. If its a
white, flaky fillet, shoppers will recognize it as seabass.
They wont 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 youve got a warehouse
full of fish, youll 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 seabassassuming
thats what it really is.
Derricks view embodies the current controversy
between scientists and fishermen over whats 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. "Well have no
fish for a couple of years, and all of a sudden
theyre back." Ealy and fellow commercial fisherman
Todd Fraser, owner of Bayside Marine Commercial
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
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 dont want them to come to me and say I
gave them too low a number."
For many concerned consumers, a Seafood Watch card still
doesnt 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 worlds 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.
"Ill remember the Chilean seabass thing now," says
Alexandra Dumas, 23, a Santa Cruz resident and occasional seafood eater.
"If I see it I
wont 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. "Were 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."