by G. Bruce Knecht
Summer 2007

On the evening of August 6, 2003, an Australian patrol boat spotted an unidentified vessel near Heard Island, an uninhabited scrap of land halfway between Australia and South Africa, 900 miles north of Antarctica. Stephen Duffy, the Australian customs officer who was leading the patrol, knew what he was up against: a pirate vessel – loaded not with gold doubloons but fish. More specifically Patagonian toothfish, a prehistoric gray-black creature that can live for 50 years and grow to six feet in length.

For most of their existence, toothfish had thrived in near-frozen obscurity. That was before a little-known fish merchant in Los Angeles gave them an inaccurate but much more appealing name – Chilean sea bass – and chefs fell in love with a white flesh that seemed to accept every spice and hold up to every method of cooking. As toothfish became the top-selling fish at restaurants across America, fleets of industrialized fishing vessels – many of them pirates – set out to meet the burgeoning demand.

Duffy knew the waters surrounding Heard Island, 2,500 miles southwest of Australia, holds one of the world's largest remaining populations of toothfish. The Australian government has given two vessels permits to fish there, but many other vessels operate illegally. Using "longlines" that can stretch for a dozen miles and hold 15,000 baited hooks, a single vessel can harvest 20 or more tons of fish a day: the marine equivalent of strip-mining.

Toothfish, of course, are not the only species that has been decimated by industrialized fishing. Indeed, over the past 50 years, the populations of many of the most desirable fish have been reduced by more than 90 percent. It's an environmental calamity so great that it's difficult to accept, in part because supermarkets seem to have lots of fish and also because the dwindling stocks of fish from the Northern Hemisphere have been replaced by toothfish and other species that live in faraway places.

"Everyone sees that there are plenty of fish in the market, and they don't remember what used to be there," says Daniel Pauly, one of the world’s leading fish scientists, "so they say things can't be all that bad. But they're wrong. We are in a crisis! It's not coming – it's already here. Actually, the 90-percent population decrease understates the problem because fish populations are not just declining – they're disappearing. The Hudson River used to have shad. It used to have huge sturgeon. They're not there anymore. But when the government counts the number of fisheries that are in trouble, does it include the Hudson River shad and sturgeon fisheries? No! It only counts what there is to count and forgets what's already gone."

Stephen Duffy's patrol boat was in silent mode as it closed in on its target overnight. It had been almost stationary for several hours, probably, Duffy thought, because it was retrieving a longline. At 5 a.m., Duffy instructed the helmsman to head toward the target at top speed. At 6:57 a.m., an officer monitoring the radar screen had bad news: "The contact is altering course to the south and picking up speed rapidly." Now that the target had fled, Duffy's job had become infinitely more challenging. He had hoped to catch the pirate in the act. Once the fish was processed in the onboard
factory and frozen, it would be almost impossible to prove its origin. The pirates would undoubtedly say the fish came from somewhere else.

Duffy chased the pirate ship around half of Antarctica, passing through building-sized waves, hurricane-force winds and an obstacle course of icebergs. His chase became one of the longest pursuits in nautical history. While the quarry was a single fishing vessel, the stakes were not only the fate of a species but the control of the world's oceans.

The fishing vessel's officers were eventually arrested and put on trial – twice – but the evidence was not strong enough to produce convictions. The toothfish hunters were free to return to their grim work.

But there are other strategies to put pirates out of business even if they can't always be put behind bars. We can eliminate piracy by not buying stolen fish. The "Take a Pass on Chilean Sea Bass" campaign has gathered more than 1,000 chefs who have pledged not to serve Chilean sea bass until the problem of illegal fishing is eliminated. The campaign is sponsored by the National Environmental Trust (net.org). Most of the Chilean sea bass sold in fish markets and restaurants was caught illegally. Please don't buy it!

About the Author

G. Bruce Knecht is the author of Hooked: Pirates, Poaching and the Perfect Fish, which recounts the epic chase and explains how Patagonian toothfish went from being an unknown fish to a culinary bestseller. A prize-winning reporter for The Wall Street Journal, he is also the author of The Proving Ground: the Inside Story of the Sydney to Hobart Race. An avid sailor, Knecht raced across the Atlantic in 2005 on the yacht that broke the 100-year-old transatlantic race record. He lives in New York City.