Politics of the Plate

Seafood is one dish not to eat rare.

Love Chilean sea bass? Then don't eat it. That was one of the messages members of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, an advocacy group dedicated to preserving the ocean's bounty, brought to town earlier this month. Along with fishermen Michael Brooks (Alaska) and Paul Parker (Massachusetts), the conservationists were here to educate restaurateurs, chefs, purveyors, and diners about the need to give Chilean sea bass and a host of other fish a break.

It's not news that wild fish are in jeopardy. Overfishing, habitat destruction, and indiscriminate catching and killing, a practice known as by-catch, threaten to decimate the population. By-catch in Alaska alone destroyed 30 million pounds of fish last year -- the equivalent of 120 million meals. The once-abundant orange roughy has been fished to commercial extinction, and some estimates have sea bass meeting the same fate within the next three years. And yet, endangered fish continue to show up on menus all over the country. What's a conscientious diner to do?

The answer is complex. First, chefs must become knowledgeable about the foods they put before us and take responsibility for not serving endangered species. Same goes for the suppliers who buy fish from unregulated sources, then sell them to restaurants and markets. Yet, in the end, both purveyors and restaurateurs legitimately contend they are just catering to consumer demand. So it's up to us, too, as diners and grocery shoppers, to take a stand.

Unfortunately, while it's easy enough to remember to avoid Chilean sea bass, the status of other species isn't as clear-cut. Stock conditions can change quickly. And even within plentiful species, the conditions under which the fish are grown and/or caught can make a difference. Take salmon, for instance. Farm-raised salmon is bad, because the process spreads disease into the wild. Although wild salmon is good, proceed cautiously with salmon from Washington or Oregon -- their populations may be dwindling.

It's a confusing picture, and timely information can be hard to find. However, websites like www.magazine.audubon.org and www.mbayaq.org can help. Fisherman Parker suggests diners research five or six of their favorite fish, to see if they're endangered. If they are, he says, switch to others that aren't. In general, tilapia, rainbow trout, striped bass, cod, Alaskan halibut, mahi mahi, and yellow-fin tuna are good choices. But let's all lay off the sea bass for a while, lest we literally love it to death.