Friday, June 17, 2011

Joy to the Fishes in the Deep Blue Sea

Joy to you and me.

Brad and I eat a lot of fish, particularly in the summer.  When at the market, I typically look for whatever fish is fresh (not previously frozen) and wild caught (not farmed).  Armed with my copy of Everyday Food in my purse, I selected Chilean sea bass, chose a recipe, then went off to find the other ingredients.

I try to be aware of sustainability issues, but have to admit I generally rely on signage posted in the fish case at Whole Foods.  And the fact that I'm in Whole Foods, which isn't supposed to carry fish that's not sustainable.  But before writing today's blog entry, I decided to find out more about the fish we had for dinner last night.

My first stop was the Monterey Bay Aquarium website, home of Seafood Watch and the recognized authority on seafood sustainability.  To my surprise, Chilean sea bass is listed as "avoid."


Researching further, I discovered an interesting backstory on Chilean sea bass. 

Now, all this happened in the not-too-distant past, which made me wonder how I missed it.  Maybe I'm the only one who remained oblivious to the perils facing Chilean sea bass.  But in case you missed it, too, here it is.

If you've had Chilean sea bass, you know what an incredibly delicious fish it is, with its silky, large-flake flesh.  People love it.  And in the 1990's, people apparently loved it a little too much, quickly making it overfished and endangered.  So a group of about 1,000 chefs vowed to "Take a Pass on Chilean Sea Bass," a campaign that helped bring to light the issues regarding this beloved fish, and pulled it from their restaurant menus.

In 1999, Whole Foods Market stopped selling Chilean sea bass altogether.  Then in 2006 it found a sustainable South Georgia Island fishery that was certified by the Marine Stewardship Council ("MSC"), and brought it back to stores. 

One of the problems is most Chilean sea bass is caught using bottom longlines, which hook and drown thousands of sea birds each year.  Another issue is Chilean sea bass is a very slow-growing species that takes nine or ten years to reach reproductive maturity, and can live 40 years.  This makes it extremely vulnerable to overfishing.

MSC-certified Chilean sea bass fisheries don't use bottom longlines, and they fish in a territory where the Council has determined there is a healthy population of the fish.  And according to their recertification (for October 2009 through October 2013), these MSC-certified fisheries are doing very well at maintaining the population and minimizing ecological impacts, achieving scores significantly higher than in the original certification.

However, only about 5% of Chilean sea bass sold worldwide is from MSC-certified fisheries, and it is still considered to be overfished outside the territory of the certified fisheries.  Illegal and unreported fishing magnifies the problem, as pirate fisherman try to cash in on the high demand of this sought-after fish.

So, as my Public Service Announcement today, please always look for the MSC certification before buying Chilean sea bass.  If certified sustainable Chilean sea bass is not available, there are several good alternatives:  Striped bass, Pacific halibut and sablefish (black cod) from Alaska and British Columbia are listed in Seafood Watch as "best choices" and mahi mahi as a "good alternative".

Chilean Sea Bass with Tomatoes and Fennel
This is another recipe inspired by one in Everyday Food, the July/August 2011 issue.  If you've made it this far, you've probably read enough, so I'll dispense with further chit-chat and get right down to it.

This was yummy.  Recipe below.

Back to Rioja we went for this fish, with a white wine from R. Lopez de Heredia.  Specifically, the Vina Gravonia.  This wine is aged in barrels for four years before bottling, which is much longer than is typical for white wines.  As you can see from the picture, we drank a 2000, and it was awesome.  Over time the wine becomes very silky; almost sauternes-like, but without the sweetness.

Chilean Sea Bass with Tomatoes and Fennel
1 Tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
1 small fennel bulb, thinly sliced lengthwise (save fronds)
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 garlic clove, minced
2 large tomatoes, diced large
3/4 pound Chilean sea bass, cut into two portions

Heat a large skillet with a tight-fitting lid over medium; add olive oil and swirl to coat bottom of pan.  Add fennel and cook, stirring frequently, until translucent, about 4 minutes.  Season with salt and pepper.

Add tomatoes to the pan with the fennel and cook, stirring frequently, until the tomatoes soften and release their juices, 3 to 4 minutes.  Nestle halibut in the tomato mixture and season again with salt and pepper.  Cover and cook until the fillets are done (opaque throughout), about 8 minutes.

Serve fish and tomato mixture in a shallow bowl over couscous or quinoa.  Sprinkle with reserved fennel fronds.


  1. Great research on Chilean Sea Bass! Loved the detailed history about Whole Foods, MSC and this fish. I notice that on the Seafood Watch page about Chilean Sea Bass that they do have a paragraph about MSC sustainable fish at the bottom of the page. And your recipe looks delicious!

  2. Wow, I'm so flattered to receive such a nice compliment from an accomplished chef! Thank you for linking your page on Chilean Sea Bass. Your site has such great information. I'll be spending some time on it, for sure.