You are reading the menu at a really nice restaurant. You’re in the mood for seafood. After careful study, you see it, the perfect choice. Ordering this delicacy will doubtless distinguish you as a sophisticated gastronome.
You order Chilean sea bass.
Your dinner announces its arrival with aromatic promise. Your first bite confirms that you made the right choice. What could be better than Chilean sea bass, cooked to perfection?
But what you are really eating is Patagonian toothfish, Dissostichus eleginoides, a large, long-living, incredibly ugly yet exceptionally tasty fish that thrives in the cold waters of the South Atlantic. Reaching up to seven feet in length and living for up to fifty years, this popular entree in restaurants the world over remained largely unnoticed until 1984 when the seafood industry decided to rebrand the Patagonian toothfish into the ever-more-palatable Chilean sea bass.
Four years later, fleets of Russian fishing vessels appeared specially equipped to take away large quantities of this enormous creature. That marked the turning point in the rebranding of the Patagonian toothfish. From that austral summer in 1988, the lowly fish with the unseemly name, now recast as the elegant Chilean sea bass, became a much-loved staple of restaurants worldwide.
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” So said Juliet of her lover’s last name in Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. With the rebranding of the ill-named fish, Chilean sea bass has become a highly prized dinner choice and a lucrative catch.
I wish I could report a happy ending to this rebranding effort. But, as is often the way of humans, we find a good thing and overdo it. The Patagonian toothfish, aka, Chilean sea bass, is now in danger from large-scale illegal fishing. A new name and a new image made this fish a popular meal, in fact so popular and valuable that it has been called the “white gold of the Southern oceans”.
Can we save the Patagonian toothfish? Perhaps it is time to select a more sustainable entree. I think I’ll just have a salad.
(Thanks to Simon Winchester’s compelling book, Atlantic, HarperCollins, 2010)