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I admit I was put up to it. While judging the third annual "Iron Chef" competition for Zeta's (WZTA-FM 94.9) Paul and Young Ron morning show, which was held for the occasion at the Johnson & Wales campus in North Miami, Chef Allen Susser (sitting to my right) and I were asked to point out, on the air, that talk-show host Paul Castronovo's prosciutto-wrapped swordfish dish utilized and promoted an arguably endangered species. And I'm not talking about the Italian ham (all possible puns intended). Apparently school officials had spent the previous evening with members of the environmentally correct Cousteau family, and the topic of protecting overfished species and developing sustainable practices was very much on their collective mind.
Chef Allen, who is familiar with my big mouth, let me have the floor. Castronovo's reaction was much what I expected. He said something like, "Are you kidding me? Get that microphone away from her. She must be drunk."
Of course I knew going in that observations about the exploitation of our natural resources and the inevitable disruption of the food chain don't make for good morning-show banter. But I didn't mind being the patsy, if only because the subject of conservation is never really far from my mind. And not necessarily for Greenpeace-inspired reasons. I just want to be able to eat the damn tasty fish in the future. If that means giving it up for a few years while the young swordfish reach reproductive age and populations re-establish themselves, an undertaking the culinary community pushed for in the mid-Nineties, I'm all for it.
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Finally, a similar call to action has been launched by the National Environmental Trust (NET) to "Take a Pass on Chilean Sea Bass." The popular menu item, which was named the Patagonian toothfish in the Eighties when it was discovered, was renamed for a more euphemistic marketing angle when commercial fishing of the species began in 1996. The PR buzz worked only too well. Seven years later, the toothfish is so dramatically endangered that experts predict the species will be extinct in five years. Reasons for the drastic decline include market demand as well as the nature of the species, which grows slowly, lives as long as a human, and only starts to reproduce at about ten years. Thanks to this late onset of puberty, many of the fish that are being caught are younger than that, a situation that is clearly "not biologically viable," says scientist Beth C. Clark, director of the Antarctica Project and consultant to the Take a Pass initiative.
As a result, many of the toothfish populations formerly found in the deep, cold waters around South America and the southern coast of Africa have already disappeared completely. The Antarctic oceans are currently the last stand for this unique fish, which can live at depths of up to a mile-and-a-quarter and is "an irreplaceable protein source for the whales and seals and a vital link in the food chain," notes Clark. "A decline in large predator populations ... is a classic sign of a fishery in trouble." Decreasing fish size is another. "Originally, we were seeing toothfish on the market that were five feet and 200 pounds. Now we see fish that are two feet and 20 pounds," she says. Another distressing fact: The wandering albatross, the largest flying bird in the world, is also endangered because of the fishery -- they go after the bait on the hooks and get dragged underwater, where they drown. About 200,000 albatrosses and other seabirds are killed this way every year.
Yes, international regulations and catch limits concerning the fishing of the toothfish, called a Catch Documentation Scheme (CDS), have been set by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR). But loopholes in the laws -- they apply to 24 nations but over 80 are involved in the fishery -- have understandably complicated matters. Poachers are creating even bigger issues. The NET estimates that "for every ton of legally caught Chilean sea bass, another five or six tons are hooked illegally." Once the Antarctic toothfish comes into the country, there's no way of determining if it was caught legally, which is why the researchers believe that 75 percent of the Chilean sea bass we are eating in restaurants was pirated. The only immediately viable way to stop the poaching is to decrease demand for the fish in general.
That's why, in addition to Clark, NET's campaign manager Andrea Kavanagh and the project's chef-consultant, Susan Taves, have been visiting, in relative order, the major food markets in the country, signing up chefs who pledge to delete the fish from their menus. Miami, the eleventh city on the list (which gives us a good idea of where we stand in the gastronomic eyes of the world), hosted the team this past week at Bongo's Cuban Café, where a press conference was held to announce those 106 Miami-Dade and Broward county restaurants, joining about 1500 nationwide, who have taken the oath.
One of our Miami spokespersons, Pearl's executive chef Frank Jeannetti, admits that Chilean sea bass "is probably the number-one seller on our menu. But when we started receiving this fish, it was large, beautiful, white flaky. Now we see that the seven-to-ten-pound fillets have gone down to maybe four pounds. It's something we [as a community] have been concerned about for the last couple of years." Personally, he says, he'll be cooking a lot more Alaskan halibut and black cod, which have properties similar to Chilean sea bass.
Taves, who is also a chef-instructor at the Cordon Bleu, encourages chefs to explore other species rather than strictly search for substitutions, which could result in similar fishery collapses. "There are so many alternatives that are viable and under control," she says. "The evidence is compelling -- this fish needs a chance."
Still, evolutionarily speaking, Take a Pass is something of the last minute. "I've been on the U.S. delegation [for the conservation of the toothfish] for thirteen years. It became apparent that this was not something we can fix from the inside," Clark admits. "That's why the campaign."
Which, quite frankly, may or may not work. For every chef that signed up -- and let's face it, some did it just for the free advertising, because many had already ceased buying the fish due to exorbitant prices -- there's another that remains skeptical. Public interest can only be stirred if, as Clark suggests, chefs write on their menus their reasons for not serving Chilean sea bass, or if we rename it "French" sea bass. "Then consumers would boycott it in a second," she notes wryly. Or if the media, naturally, gets involved, an option that doesn't look highly likely if you go by the "Take a Pass on the press conference" example -- out of all the local print journalists invited to the roundtable discussion, I was the only one who attended.