The Red List: Chilean Seabass

Experts agree that certain types of seafood should be avoided because they come from overfished stocks or are harvested in a way that damages the environment. Check out our Know Your Seafood infographic and our GO! Fish campaign for more information on the Red List and the delicious and eco-friendly alternatives.

Chilean seabass (Dissostichus eleginoides) are found in the Southern Ocean off of Chile, Argentina, South Africa, and New Zealand south of 40 degrees latitude, in the cold deep water up to about 2500m (8200ft).

Like many red-listed fish, they are slow to grow and reproduce. They mature around 6-12 years of age, though females grow faster and larger than males. It is thought that they can live to 50 years old. At full size, they can be 2m (6.5ft) long and 100 kg (220 lbs) – and very ugly!

They were once known to fishermen by another, less tasty-sounding name: Patagonian toothfish. A fish wholesaler invented the new name “Chilean seabass” in 1977 to make them more marketable in the US. That name, which increased its commercial value dramatically, was accepted by the FDA in 1994. Sometimes they are also known as Antarctic toothfish, or black hake or ice fish (the latter two are mainly used in England).

Photo by US FDA via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain. 

Because of its high value, Chilean seabass is now a common target for illegal fishermen, and because their home is in the remote and forbidding Southern Ocean, it is extremely difficult to enforce fishing regulations for this species. The most common ways to catch Chilean seabass are long lining (which has high rates of accidental bycatch), and bottom trawling (which has high bycatch and causes serious damage to the seafloor habitat).

Like many slow-growing and long-lived species, this one is vulnerable to overfishing because it takes a long time to recover.

Over the course of its long life, it also accumulates high concentrations of mercury so eating too much of it can be dangerous for you, especially if you are a child or woman who is (or could become) pregnant.

A small subset of this fishery, the South Georgia Patagonian toothfish fishery, has been certified by the Marine Stewardshp Council: fish from the certified source can be recognized by an ecolabel on the package, and the purveyor must be able to produce a “chain of custody” certification upon request.

Unless you are sure you have a certified South Georgia Patagonian toothfish on your hands, avoid this species.

Luckily, according to chef Barton Seaver, Chilean seabass can be substituted beautifully in recipes by Alaskan sablefish (also known as black cod), which “share the same buttery rich flesh, which can be cooked using almost any method.”

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