One of my fondest travel memories dates from the early 1980s at Santiago’s Mercado Central (above), where a penguin—probably a Humboldt, but perhaps a Magellanic—roamed among fishmongers who fed him scraps at a site where Texas food writer Robb Walsh found “a display of fishes and shellfish so vast and unfamiliar that I felt I was observing the marine life of another planet.”
That penguin’s no longer around—nowadays, at least, we prefer to see our penguins in the wild—but that seafood cornucopia still survives here. There are caveats, though, as the sustainability has become an issue commercial fishing has expanded in the southern seas.
One key resource is the so-called “Chilean sea bass,” with its firm but buttery flesh, which has had a high-profile presence on the international market since the 1990s. In parts of the southern oceans, this species of codfish – known to fisheries specialists by the rather less marketable name of “Patagonian toothfish” – has suffered from rampant overfishing in the waters bordering Patagonia and Antarctica. It’s worth noting that California’s Monterey Bay Aquarium maintains a Seafood Watch Program that evaluates individual species according to the environmental impact of specific fisheries, and ranks them in terms of “best,” “good,” and “avoid.”
Recently, when I visited the Falkland Islands, I found toothfish on menus in the capital of Stanley (above top) and in the lodge at outlying Bleaker Island (immediately below), where I spent two nights. Fortunately, the Aquarium ranks the Falklands toothfish in the “best” category, and Waterfront Kitchen Café owner Alex Olmedo even showed me a new toothfish cookbook, sponsored by the Coalition of Legal Toothfish Operators, on display there.
By contrast, the Aquarium ranks Chile’s own “seabass” fishery poorly in terms of management and bycatch issues, and recommends avoiding it. In a brief visit to the Mercado, I could not locate any mero—as it’s sometimes called here—though it’s possibly being sold surreptitiously.
Oddly, however, the Argentine toothfish catch goes unmentioned in Seafood Watch. In California, my home supermarket Berkeley Bowl sells “Chilean seabass (product of Argentina)” at nearly US$30 per pound (roughly US$66 per kg). I’m generally confident they follow ethical purchasing policies, but the Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Engagement Coordinator, Peter Adames, acknowledged that they have no information on the Argentine toothfish catch (and he was unaware that Berkeley Bowl sold it). He did add that “I'll check with our science team to see if there is an assessment in the works or on the horizon.”