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Battle the dark side of gourmet toothfish dishes

Legacy Phuket Gazette

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PHUKET: There are a number of reasons that toothfish, more commonly known at the dinner table as Chilean Sea Bass, are coveted by chefs – on and off the fine china of word-class restaurants and superyachts.

“Chilean Sea Bass has a fabulous taste and an almost sinful mouth-feel. Its high-fat content keeps it moist during cooking and gives it a rich, moist, tender flavor profile which melts in your mouth. It has white flesh with large, tender flakes,” explains Chefs-resources.com in its flavor profile of the delicacy.

The fish, which is traded in more than 100 countries, is primarily eaten by diners in the United States and Europe.

“Toothfish is mainly a fish for consumers in a wealthier economic group, given that it is one of the world’s most expensive fishes to eat,” said Captain Siddharth Chakravarty of the Sea Shepherd ship Steve Irwin, which is currently part of the hunt for the toothfish-poaching vessel, Viking.

Toothfish are slow-maturing, apex predators of the Southern Ocean.

“Just like sharks in tropical reefs, they maintain the health of the ecosystem,” he said.

“In addition to this, the Southern Ocean is one of the last remaining healthy ocean systems on this planet and while we are still a long way from learning everything about it, we know that every single species there plays an important part in keeping it functioning.”

Nonetheless, a strong consumer demand for the delicacy remains. Poaching of the species in the Antarctic is fueled by the high demand for the fish and legal limits on catches, which are put in place to ensure the sustainability of its populations.

The Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) has set an annual quota of just under 25,000 tons of toothfish caught per year. However, illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) poachers targeting the species are doing incalculable damage to the populations as they attempt to meet market demands.

“A Catch Documentation Scheme has been implemented under the CCAMLR to improve the traceability of the toothfish from the ocean to the plate. This has helped a lot. However, the trade of the illicit catch remains a mystery and sufficient gaps remain in ensuring 100 per cent seafood traceability,” explains Capt Chakravarty.

One such vessel, Kunlun, was apprehended in Phuket after it falsely reported offloading 182 tonnes of illegally caught Patagonian toothfish, valued at 179 million baht, as 182 tonnes of grouper, valued at just 15mn baht (story here). After months of detention, the ship was able to flee the port it was berthed at in Phuket (story here).

However, Sea Shepherd Global last week announced that authorities in Senegal have detained the internationally wanted toothfish-poaching vessel (story here).

Since escaping Phuket, there have been concerns that the vessel would be offloading its catch and returning to Antarctica. However, with its detention in Senegal, it is confirmed that the Kunlun, renamed Asian Warrior, did not return to the Southern Ocean after it was pursued by the Sea Shepherd ship Sam Simon last February.

“In previous years, illegal vessels would simply change their names and flags at will and use international loopholes and the lack of international cooperation to survive and remain in operation,” said Capt Chakravarty. “It is incredibly satisfying to know that the Kunlun, which was chased out of the Southern Ocean by my vessel in February 2015, has been unable to resume its illegal fishing operations.”

Southeast Asia has done a lot to put a spotlight on toothfish poaching vessels by detaining them in port, said Capt Chakravarty.

“Their attention and actions are very commendable and a continued vigilance in the ports of this region will ensure that IUU vessels continue to be detained and inspected in port, aiding greatly in the international efforts to combat IUU fishing,” he said.

Consumers wield an enormous amount of influence and power over the way the industry is regulated and the way governments respond to IUU operations in the fishing business, said Capt Chakravarty.

“Consumers should first be aware of the food choices they make and secondly demand transparency and traceability for all seafood.”

— Isaac Stone Simonelli

 

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Archiving articles from the Phuket Gazette circa 1998 - 2017. View the Phuket Gazette online archive and Digital Gazette PDF Prints.

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