Amidst the delicate filets of flounder, the tender pink salmon, and the hearty cuts of swordfish, you probably would not deign to offer a second glance to something called toothfish, except perhaps to scrunch your face up in quizzical disgust. You wouldn’t be alone.
For years, fisheries tried unsuccessfully to market the Patagonian Toothfish, but the name was highly unappetizing to the public. It seemed as though the toothfish was doomed to quick condemnation in the United States, as consumers relied upon the safe familiarity with other fish to base their purchasing decisions on, unwilling to experiment with this new contender.
A lot has changed in ten years. The Patagonian Toothfish, once plentiful in southern oceans, now suffers immensely from overfishing, and is coming dangerously close to commercial extinction. Its popularity has increased tenfold, and can easily be found on many menus, and is purchased extensively at supermarkets and fisheries.
So how did it get so popular? Some quick thinkers were of the opinion that a more attractive name might hold considerable sway over the masses, and promptly began marketing the Patagonian Toothfish under its new and improved moniker, Chilean Sea Bass.
It was nearly an overnight success. The pairing of the subtle exoticism of Chile and familiar characteristic of bass propelled the fish into the limelight. The supple white meat suddenly exhibited new clarity under this new label, and lo and behold, it also tasted good. The Chilean Sea Bass was a rising, shining star in the seafood world. It’s celebrity status was the talk of the culinary town. But, unfortunately, no one could predict that there was a dark side to its sudden stardom.
Chefs hailed the fish for its rich flavor and susceptibility to various cooking techniques and flavorful creations, and consumers greedily and happily purchased Chilean Sea Bass in droves, glad to set the supper table with such an exciting alternative to salmon and swordfish.
Chilean Sea Bass have the unfortunate distinction to suffer from very slow maturity. Due to the onset of its immense popularity, the combined years of mass overfishing have caused the once thriving population of toothfish to sharply and severely decline. Many chefs and restaurants, as well as environmental groups, now act to try to save the toothfish from future extinction, giving them time to recover and reproduce, but the fight against illegal fishing is hard and long, and so far has been largely unsuccessful in stemming the tide.
The plight of the fish is certainly something to consider, but even more foreboding for humans are the health warnings associated with the Chilean Sea Bass. The fish is extremely high in mercury, and consumers are advised to eat only two meals consisting of sea bass per month, with only one meal advised for children. Despite their clean, freshly sweet taste, for health reasons they are now considered one of the worst fish to consume.
And so while they still remain something of a celebrity, the notoriety of the Chilean Sea Bass is quickly catching up to it, and it may not be long before the name of Chilean Sea Bass disappears from markets and menus as quickly as Patagonian Toothfish did.