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January 2008
- by Carol Standish
Book Cover Hooked
Pirates, Poaching
and the Perfect Fish

G. Bruce Knecht
Rodale Press, 280pp, $16.95

Hooked is the story of high tech factory fishing-poaching and pirating, international deception, food fashions and ultimately about insatiable human appetite. It's also about a fish which is heavily marketed as a cheaper sweet white meat fish now that popular species like cod, halibut and the mighty and delicious swordfish stocks have for all practical purposes, been fished out.

Chapters focus on the machinations of the fish brokers operating in international food markets, upscale urban restaurants and the trend-setting chefs who own them (seventy percent of seafood sales in the United States is to restaurants). The efforts of an Australian patrol boat to pursue and board and bring to justice a suspected poacher provide plenty of action. The maze of international legal maneuvering to establish and enforce quotas and manage fishing grounds is also examined-though not in detail.

The subject of all the ruckus, the actual quarry is Dissostichus eleginoides, alias bacaloa de profundidad or Patagonian toothfish which lives and thrives (or used to) in depths of twenty-five hundred feet or more in the southern oceans.

The species was first fished in the early 1980s from small boats-forty feet or so-on long-lines carrying as many as two thousand hooks (a single long line could catch seven or more tons of toothfish) in Chilean waters just off that country's narrow continental shelf.

As the market grew so did the boats. Large factory fishing vessels had the capacity to head, gut, flash freeze and store tons of fish. As for marketing the "product" (it really is an ugly sucker with a jutting jaw full of razor sharp teeth), it was renamed "Chilean Sea Bass" For almost 20 years the fish was filleted to a fare-thee-well, exotically cooked and served pretty much world-wide. Even chain restaurants like "The Red Lobster" and the "frozen fish finger" plants used the fish in their ready to cook products.

When first fished in large numbers by the fleets of several fishing nations, the average tooth fish weighed in at 50 to 80 pounds. In less than 20 years, by the late 1990s individual fish were weighing between 15 and 20 pounds. New York City chef, Rick Moonen had seen the same thing happen to swordfish. Consulting with the coordinator of the earlier chef's boycott of the nearly extinct swordfish, his suspicions were confirmed. The consultant replied, "It's a total disaster. There's rampant over-fishing and probably 90 percent of what comes to the United States is caught by pirates. The resulting campaign slogan was "Take a Pass on Chilean Bass."

However regulatory changes were only mildly affected by increased public concern. An official frankly admits, "The government relies on spot check on imports." Documents are easily forged and often used over and over in different ports.

Case in point: the 250-foot Australian patrol boat, the Southern Supporter chased a Uruguayan factory ship into the Antarctic ice, successfully subdued the pirate toothfish vessel and brought it and the crew back to Australia and filed charges. The first trial ended in a miss-trial. In the second, with an adjustment in the make-up of the jury, the judgment was "not guilty."

Hooked literally drags you around the world. From the Antarctic to posh New York restaurants, from Long Island to Los Angeles and from Valparaiso, Chile to Vancouver, British Columbia. It is part social history, part high seas chase and part court room drama, all fascinating.

Just yesterday I read an article in the newspaper about the imminent demise of the Blue Fin Tuna from over fishing. The lessons just don't seem to sink in-but hope lies in the fact that the chef's boycott of swordfish did result in sufficient regulation and protection to give that fish a chance to recover its numbers. Let's do it for the tasty toothfish!

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