Andrew Katkin is the web manager for the National Environmental Trust. He is a member of NET’s team of staffers attending the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species.

Monday, 11 Nov 2002

SANTIAGO, Chile

Only a week has passed since the opening ceremonies of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species meeting here in Santiago, Chile — but for those of us working the convention, it feels like an eternity. Delegates from all of 160 CITES member countries are here, and since the moment we hit the ground, we’ve been struggling to get their attention. There are proposals to increase or decrease protections for more than 60 species of flora and fauna, and with thousands of NGO representatives working on these issues, it’s easy to get lost in the din.

CITES was developed in the 1970s in response to concerns about the detrimental effect international trade was having on wild animals and plants. In particular, there was a recognition that, with the early stages of globalization and increased international trade, local or regional groups alone could no longer protect their native species.

Every 30 months or so, CITES is convened in a different country. Any member nation can propose protections for any species, although historically, favor has been given to proposals brought by countries where the species is either heavily traded or indigenous. Appendix I protection is for seriously endangered species and it prohibits all commercial trade. Appendix II and Appendix III listings increase export control protections for species threatened by commercial trade. Because of the large number of member countries, a listing with CITES virtually guarantees that trade will be properly regulated and documented worldwide, or, in the case of an Appendix I listing, come to a screeching halt.

I am here with a group of NGOs, including the National Environmental Trust, Greenpeace, and the Antarctica Project, working together with legal fishers from Chile and Australia, to get an Appendix II listing for Patagonian toothfish, known in the U.S. by its market name, Chilean sea bass. The toothfish has been caught by Chilean and Australian fishers working in the waters of the ocean around Antarctica for years, but before the mid-’80s, the fish was almost always discarded as bycatch and tossed, dead, back into the waters from which it was pulled.

Caught by the toothfish.

Photo: Greenpeace.

All of this changed, however, in 1986, when the Chilean government hired a consulting firm to develop a marketing strategy for this unloved fish — previously referred to by the fishers who caught it as the devil fish because of the large amounts of smaller, marketable, fish it ate. Shortly thereafter “Chilean sea bass” was born, and, within a few years, it became one of the hottest dishes at high-end restaurants across America.

Unfortunately for the toothfish, which actually has no relation whatsoever to true sea bass, its popularity has proved to be its downfall. Once avoided by fishers, the so-called devil fish quickly began to be seen as the “white gold” of the sea. Prices for the fish skyrocketed as an international market for it was developed. Catch limits for toothfish are currently set by the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, a strictly voluntary body with only 24 member countries. While legal fishers carefully record their catches and stay within the limits set by CCAMLR, illegal, pirate fishers routinely flout the voluntary limits. By some estimates, the illegal catch of toothfish in recent years has been two to three times larger than the legal one.

Toothfish is a slow-growing fish that doesn’t reach sexual maturity until it is between 8- and 10-years-old; it can live for up to 80 years and grow to more than 200 pounds. Some marine biologists who study toothfish populations believe that the fish’s population will collapse within five years if we continue to catch it at the current rate, thus making the toothfish one of the shortest-lived food fads in American history. Signs of danger for the toothfish include smaller catches in icy southern waters where large catches were previously the norm, and the taking of smaller and smaller fish, many of which have not yet reached sexual maturity.

That’s where we come in. For the last year, NET has been running the “Take a Pass on Chilean Sea Bass” campaign, organizing chefs and seafood wholesalers across America to reduce demand for the toothfish and educate consumers about the plight of the fish. Already, nearly 1,000 chefs have signed our pledge and agreed to remove toothfish from their menus until its population is protected. Currently, even seafood wholesalers and retailers in the U.S. have no way of knowing whether the toothfish they buy and sell was caught legally by fishers trying to respect catch limits, or by pirate fishers who launder the fish, much like cash is laundered, to obfuscate the fact that it has been poached.

If an Appendix II listing were put in place, the ports that cater to pirate fishers would be forced to properly record the amount of toothfish that they were processing — and wholesalers and restaurants would therefore know that their toothfish was legally caught and that the amount of toothfish being caught was not jeopardizing the long-term survival of the species.

Keep your fingers crossed for us! After a week of press conferences, delegate briefings, and late-night lobbying sessions, we expect the issue to be raised officially at the meeting today and it may be voted on as early as tomorrow. Getting a new species listed on CITES is an uphill battle — it requires a two-thirds majority vote from the delegates. If we are successful, the toothfish would be the first non-mammalian marine species to receive an Appendix II listing. If you want to help, it’s not too late to urge members of the U.S. delegation to support the proposal. Free faxes can be sent via the National Environmental Trust’s online action center.