Is Chilean sea bass in danger?

Chilean sea bass is one of many species at risk from overfishing.

The short answer to that question is no, but the real story is a little more complex. Although Chilean bass does not meet legal standards to be listed as an endangered species, the health of the fishery for this popular fish is questionable. As a result, many organizations that promote sustainable fishing suggest that people avoid eating this fish in favor of other white fish such as halibut, Atlantic herring, barramundi or Pacific halibut.

To preserve Chilean sea bass, some promote the consumption of fish such as barramundi.

Before starting a discussion on how endangered this fish really is, it might be helpful to know what a Chilean sea bass is, as this fish is not a sea bass or a native of Chile. Its scientific name is Dissostichus eleginoides, and the most proper common name is toothfish or black toothfish. The fish prefer the deep waters of the South Pacific, and while they can be found off the coast of Chile, at one point they were widely distributed in other parts of the ocean as well.

Chilean sea bass is a popular dish in restaurants.

Several things put this species at risk from overfishing. They mature very slowly and tend to cluster together during spawning, which makes them easy prey for trawlers. Studies of fish have shown a steady decline in the population, indicating that their popularity as a food fish has put great pressure on the population. Ironically, the disclosure of the fish situation also increased the rate of illegal hunting, which puts even more pressure on the species, since the fish is not regulated or accounted for in national quotas.

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Most regulatory agencies classify Chilean bass as “overfished,” meaning that it is not officially threatened with extinction, but could be heading in that direction. Some people have suggested that this fish has become a political issue and that it is not listed as a legally endangered species due to pressure from the fishing industry. This complaint is difficult to prove, as it is clear that studies on the fish and the regularization of their population have been very difficult to carry out, making it difficult to legally classify the fish as threatened.

Consumers are invited to consider alternative choices because it is difficult to determine whether or not a particular fish has been legally caught. By reducing overall demand, activists hope to reduce the appeal of poaching, which would reduce pressure on these fish and allow them to recover. Many prominent restaurateurs have joined forces to champion the cause of Chilean sea bass and alert consumers to fisheries conservation issues in general.

US consumers who want to make more informed choices about their fish can consult the Marine Stewardship Council website. This group certifies fish harvested in a sustainable and healthy way. More information on food choices can be found at Seafood Watch, an organization run by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Seafood Watch also has a handy pocket chart with fish options that can be taken to restaurants and grocery stores.

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