The Next Big Fish

The Fish Site
by The Fish Site
27 November 2006, at 12:00am

US - Chilean sea bass was the first celebrity fish - until we nearly ate it all. How far do we have to go to find its successor? Just near the Berkshires, actually.

It is an old tale of the price of fame. It is both comedy and tragedy. It begins with a South American dictator. It's a story of plucky fishermen pushed out to sea and into peril. It even has pirates.

But, mostly, it is the story of one fish that spent hundreds of placid centuries inoffensively cruising the deepest, coldest waters of the southern sea, down where the great primal engine of the Humboldt Current drives the waters of Antarctica into the southern Pacific, a fish that became so popular that it was sold into virtual extinction. Once upon a time, there was a fish that died of marketing.

More than 30 years ago, Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, in a frenzy of deregulation, threw open his country's territorial waters to foreign factory fishing, which not only decimated the local supplies of cod and hake – the fatty, versatile whitefish that are the staples of seafood restaurants everywhere – but also sent Chilean fishermen into deeper and more dangerous waters.

Soon, from depths that exceeded 5,000 feet, they began hauling up the Patagonian toothfish, an enormous, hideous creature that had evolved in ways that made it a nearly perfect replacement for the species that had been devastated by factory fishing. For example, because it lacked a swim bladder, the fish had developed a method of using fats secreted directly into its tissues as a means of flotation. Its body was almost all white flesh. The fish was nearly pure foodstuff. All it needed was a spiffy nom de cuisine. Nobody ever would have taken a bite out of something called the Patagonian toothfish. And thus, in 1977, was born the product known as Chilean sea bass.