Toothfish: The new sacrificial lamb?


Steven Hedlund

Published on
April 13, 2011

New Zealand Longline’s Ross Tocker had it right when, in an interview with the Nelson Mail on Thursday, he called Patagonian toothfish “a sacrificial lamb.” Tocker’s beef is that U.S. retailers often take the easy way out by vowing not to sell a species they don’t sell much of anyway.

Retailers ought to be commended for collaborating with environmental NGOs to develop and strengthen their sustainable seafood sourcing policies. But this habit of saying “no” to a species a retailer is already saying “no” to — or doesn’t sell much of — is all too common.

Toothfish, marketed as Chilean sea bass in the United States, is a prime example. Bluefin tuna is another example. What conventional supermarket is carrying bluefin tuna?

In the spirit of Greenpeace’s report ranking U.S. retailers according to their sustainable seafood sourcing policies, the fifth installment of which was released this week, I thought I’d create my own quick list of species that frequently turn up on retailers’ “do-not-sell” commitments:

1) Chilean sea bass
2) bluefin tuna
3) shark
4) billfish (marlin, sailfish, etc.)
5) orange roughy

The point I’m trying to make is that, collectively, these “do-not-sell” species constitute 0.1 percent of U.S. seafood consumption. And that’s being generous. If retailers want to make a difference, they should concentrate on shrimp, salmon and canned tuna, which alone represent just over half of U.S. seafood consumption.

And they are. Many retailers are aligned with organizations like the World Wildlife Fund or Global Aquaculture Alliance, working toward ensuring that the shrimp, salmon and other species they buy is certified sustainable.

But why throw Chilean sea bass under the bus? Why make it a sacrificial lamb, especially when one Chilean sea bass fishery — the South Georgia Patagonian toothfish longline fishery — has been certified sustainable under the Marine Stewardship Council program since 2004?

Retailers may score quick points with environmentalists, the mainstream media and consumers when they do so, but the real solution lies with engaging more fisheries and farms in certification programs like the MSC and the GAA’s Best Aquaculture Practices. 

Correction: Previously, I inaccurately stated that California-based retailer Safeway does not sell Chilean sea bass when, in fact, it does sell MSC-certified Chilean sea bass from the South Georgia Patagonian toothfish longline fishery. I apologize for the error. 

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