by G. Bruce Knecht
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supermarkets seem to have lots of fish and also because the dwindling stocks of fish from the Northern Hemisphere have been replaced by toothfish and other species that live in faraway places.