Feeding Frenzy

Retro commercials on TV Land assure us of several critical things. A Coke, for example, tamed angry 1970s linebackers. Cartoon owls knew the answers to universal riddles, like the number of licks necessary to break through to the center of a Tootsie Pop. Most important, America's seafood industry dredged only for tuna that tasted good.

Sorry, Charlie. Nowadays, lowercase coke soothes the savage star athlete, and fishing boats scour the seas for anything they can find.

At least it seems that way. Two years ago the U.S. Marine Fisheries Service issued a warning after discovering a 70 percent drop in the Atlantic swordfish population. Russia halted commercial fishing of sturgeon in the Caspian Sea last week and banned further exports of black caviar until the end of 2001 in an effort to save the big, ugly fish from extinction. Watchdog organizations from Greenpeace to the Marine Stewardship Council claim that other fish, including the popular Chilean sea bass, are severely threatened by overfishing.

"We've experienced some droughts with sea bass," admits James Neel, chef-owner of Tramontana. "But it's our number one selling fish."

William Koval, executive chef of The French Room, sells roughly 60 pounds of sea bass a week. At $13 per pound it's the most expensive fish he purchases. Last year it cost him $9.75 a pound. Neel's restaurant serves up about 80 pounds of Chilean sea bass each week. He's concerned about the state of the world's fisheries but also about consumer demand. "To this day I don't serve swordfish because of the extinction scare," he says. "I hear about sea bass, and the best thing I can do is learn more and buy from reputable people. But we have to sell what our customers want, too."

Chefs operate in the middle of the classic supply and demand equation, buffeted this way and that by environmental concerns and consumer desires. A sudden spike in demand devastates fisheries and pocketbooks. Fifteen years ago, orange roughy sold at $1 a pound. Today restaurants pay $12 a pound, and the National Marine Fisheries Services lists it among the world's overfished species.

While concerned with the dwindling fish population, chefs measure the actual threat through more mundane channels than wildlife group pronouncements. "I have different suppliers and can usually get what I want," explains Hans Bergmann, chef-owner of Cacharel in Arlington. When extinction becomes a possibility--such as the swordfish crisis--many restaurants drop the threatened fish from their menus. But they also know that natural elements like weather also occasionally interrupt supply. "Red snapper is more challenging to find on a day-to-day basis than sea bass," Neel says. Despite shouts of near extinction from some watchdog organizations, Carl Safina of the Audubon Society calmly explains that overfished species require laws designed to replenish the population rather than endangered status. "About a third of the fish are depleted," he says. "Not threatened with extinction, except in the case of some sturgeon and certain salmon. But the future of fisheries is quite insecure." He lists Atlantic swordfish, cod and Chilean sea bass among those in the worst shape.

Russian caviar suffers from a host of problems, including pollution and poaching. According to the World Wildlife Fund, adult sturgeon numbers in the Caspian Sea tumbled from 142 million in 1978 to a mere 43.5 million six years later. Ten years ago, Iran and Russian, the two largest suppliers of caviar, exported more than 1,000 tons of roe. This year some importers expect less than 100 tons. "I haven't used beluga caviar in a year and a half because of quality issues," says Koval, who now serves osetra caviar. "Beluga is now so wet and moist and mushy, I won't serve it. The fish are being pulled out of the water 20 years too early." Indeed, the large beluga sturgeon often tip the scale at more than a ton, although the average catch now registers a mere 100 pounds, and scientists report that sturgeon on the Russian side of the Caspian rarely complete their natural life span. Some 1,200 factories line the Caspian's shores in Kazakstan, and Azerbaijan dumps 300 million cubic meters of raw sewage into the sea each year. No wonder the stuff tastes mushy. Iran maintains state control of its fishing industry, operating restocking programs and enforcing catch limits. "Iranian caviar is unbelievable," says George Papadapolous, executive chef at Voltaire--a judgment echoed by other chefs.

The breakup of the Soviet Union and subsequent economic troubles across the region--and high demand for exotic products in the booming west--add up to disaster for the sturgeon population. A single fish can produce $500 worth of caviar--an attractive prospect for poachers tied to organized crime.

"It's gotten pretty barbaric with caviar," Koval sighs.

Not just barbaric, but costly. "We're paying a higher price for premium products," complains Brian Perry, general manager of the Palm, "and we can't just pass that on to the customer." Restaurants charge $85 and up for beluga caviar. The Iranian stuff runs higher. "We have to bite the bullet when prices go through the roof," Neel agrees. "Crabmeat has been tough for me to find this year. Dean [Fearing] and all those guys get the truly fresh stuff because they can pay top dollar. But I don't want to charge $15 for crab cakes." Instead, restaurants play a game of catch-up, eating--pardon the pun--the cost now and inching it up later. "We just gotta ride it out and tell the wait staff to push the salmon."

The Marine Stewardship Council operates a program to help consumers identify nonthreatened species. "Five fisheries have been certified to the MSC Standard to date, including Alaska salmon and New Zealand hoki," says Louisa Barnett, London-based communications officer with the MSC, "and around 30 fisheries are currently at some stage of the certification process." Some markets, including Whole Foods, recognize the MSC standard.

Perhaps demand for Chilean sea bass would plummet if chefs listed it on their menus by its more proper name--the Patagonian toothfish. But chefs expect a certain amount of deception, especially when a product becomes wildly popular. "A number of distributors are now selling frozen sea bass and calling it fresh," Neel explains. "I've been burned on that before, so now I order whole sea bass." Other distributors try various scams. One chef encountered drum fillets labeled as sea bass. Another found 2-year-old frozen bass among a distributor's stock.

Ah, aged Patagonian toothfish. Call Starkist.


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