What You Need to Know About Chilean Sea Bass
Chilean sea bass has been touted for its silky texture and buttery flavor, but it has a complicated history. Since the early 2000s, the fish has been over-harvested, often illegally. To understand why this fish continues to be sought-after and to find out if populations have stabilized enough to consider this a sustainable choice for home cooks, we turned to author and sustainable seafood expert Barton Seaver.
What's in a name?
Although Chilean sea bass is from the waters near Chile and is technically a sea bass, it's real name is Patagonian toothfish. So, why isn't it known by that name? "Simply because toothfish is not sexy," says Seaver. He adds that not only is toothfish an off-putting moniker but "sea bass" is well known and accepted, giving consumers a point of reference.
Why is it so expensive?
Chilean sea bass runs about $30 a pound, which makes it considerably more expensive than other white fish. What's the reason for this higher price? "The fisheries [for Chilean sea bass] are located far from shore, way out in the open seas," says Seaver. He explains that this distance adds difficulty to the supply chain and also notes, "It's worth it. All properly raised/caught protein should come with a price tag that reflects the economy of producing something sustainably."
Is Chilean sea bass sustainable?
According to Monterey Bay Aquarium's SeafoodWatch.com, the Patagonian toothfish (otherwise known as Chilean sea bass) should be avoided due to overfishing. It is still being overfished in Chilean waters and the stock around Prince Edward and Marion Island in the South Atlantic Ocean is nearly depleted. "It is a long-lived deep-water species that is slow to reproduce. These factors make it particularly vulnerable to fishing pressure," says Seaver. There are regulations in place to protect the fish but it will take years until stocks increase and numbers are sufficient for it to be recommended as a sustainable choice.
Is it good for you?
Like many other white fish, Chilean sea bass is a low-calorie, protein-dense fish. However, it also has high levels of mercury. The Environmental Defense Fund recommends adults only consume two portions of Chilean sea bass each month and children only eat one portion each month due to the concerning levels of mercury.
Are there any alternatives to Chilean sea bass?
Now that we know that Chilean sea bass is not sustainable and has high levels of mercury, what other similar fish can we cook? Seaver recommends sablefish, which offers the same "silken richness" and texture that Chilean sea bass has-and with even higher levels of omega-3s. Like Chilean sea bass, sablefish is forgiving when cooked, making it a good choice for novice seafood cooks. It also "allows for the exterior to gain a brilliant crisped coloration while the inside remains delightfully smooth," says Seaver.