Three weeks earlier, I had received an e-mail from Greenpeace: Chilean sea bass, I read, ranks among the planet's most vulnerable species of edible fish. Not only is it at risk of commercial extinction within five years (meaning no longer plentiful enough to harvest, though not necessarily biologically extinct), but its dire situation signals the possible collapse of an entire ecosystem.
How did the Chilean sea bass get into such deep trouble? Thirty years ago, Chilean strongman Augusto Pinochet gave foreign fishing concerns cheap access to his nation's waters. Eventually they tapped into the frigid Humboldt current around Antarctica where, in the eternal night half a mile below the earth's surface, the Patagonian toothfish flourished. This species' unusual fattiness made it not only tasty but also forgiving of overcooking and other culinary blunders. The fishing industry went into a get-rich-quick frenzy, and marketers too got busy. By the time this Alfred E. Neuman look-alike hit the menus of upscale restaurants in the early 1980s, it had undergone a celebrity make-over into the glamorous Chilean sea bass.
Although this species takes 10 years to reach sexual maturity, most of the catch consists of spawning and reproductive-age fish. Moreover, for every pound harvested legally, some five pounds are harvested illegally. The National Environmental Trust's Take a Pass on Chilean Sea Bass campaign, endorsed by various celebrity chefs, has barely slowed the slaughter.
The Castro Street restaurant isn't alone in serving Chilean sea bass. A quick survey of local menus reveals Chilean sea bass with coconut green curry sauce, Chilean sea bass tikka, banana leaf Chilean sea bass, and so on. Nor is it the only popular endangered fish. The bluefin tuna, for instance, a megaspecies on the brink of biological extinction, frequently shows up as a chalkboard special at local sushi restaurants.
According to Science, 90 percent of the oceans' major predators have vanished, and marine species diversity has collapsed. Managing the ocean responsibly will require unparalleled international cooperation. Yet consumers too can take significant action.
Diners, for instance, can use the Monterey Bay Aquarium's credit-card-sized Seafood Watch guide to help them responsible choices. The card can be downloaded at www.montereybayaquarium.org, or checked using a mobile device by logging on to mobile.seafoodwatch.org.
Diners can also ask questions. For example, a number of local eateries offer something called "sea bass." But is it the red-lighted Chilean sea bass or green-lighted white sea bass?
Meanwhile, chefs and restaurant owners can check the Web site of the Conservation Alliance for Seafood Solutions, which helps businesses move toward sustainable practices. See www.solutionsforseafood.org/forbusiness.
With Mountain View a dining destination, we have a role to play in helping to spare our children the terrible day when the last wild fish has been caught, frozen, shipped, sliced, marinated, steamed, glazed, consumed, digested and forgotten. And the ocean is dead.