Back on the menu

How smarter fishing practices, improved management and MSC certification have transformed toothfish's fortunes

The world's most notorious poacher

In one of the most remote and inhospitable places on earth, Peter Hammarstedt had found company.

But it wasn't the sort of company he was accustomed to keeping. Metres away, in a desolate patch of Antarctic sea called the Banzare bank, one of the world's most notorious pirates was engaged in an act of plunder.

The pirate was not a person, but a ship, a 62m fishing vessel named Thunder. Banned from fishing in the Antarctic eight years earlier, the Thunder had since been on a crime spree that had netted her owners more than $60 million from illegal catches, as well as first place on Interpol's Purple Notice List of most wanted poachers.

The Thunder's prey of choice was toothfish, often known as white gold in the trade on account of the high prices it can fetch.

Until this encounter at the bottom of the planet in December 2014, the fugitive ship had proven adept at evading justice.

And it wasn't about to yield on this occasion. Instead of responding to radio calls from Hammarstedt's vessel to cease and desist, the Thunder opened her throttles and fled.

1970 and 80s
The white gold rush

Almost four decades earlier, Lee Lantz, an American seafood merchant was on the hunt for new species of fish to market back home.

At a fishing port in Chile he found what he was looking for: a fish with buttery white flesh and a mild, non-fishy flavour. One that was incredibly versatile and hard to overcook.

Lantz had tasted his first Patagonian toothfish, a human-sized deep-living fish found only in the planet's coldest waters. But he knew that the toothfish's ugly appearance and even uglier name would make it a tough sell, so he invented a more appealing moniker: Chilean sea bass.

The rebrand was a success, and it wasn't long before his creation was gracing the tables of upscale seafood restaurants around the world.

With demand and prices surging, the white gold rush began in earnest.

Late 1990s
The edge of collapse

Fishing boomed, with landings rocketing from just a thousand tonnes a year in the late 1970s to between 30 and 40 times that by the mid-to-late 1990s.

But the good times weren't to last. Toothfish are slow to mature and reproduce, making them vulnerable to overfishing. More fishing vessels began targeting toothfish, putting pressure on stocks. And so lucrative were the returns that it wasn't long before the pirates got in on the act.

By the late 1990s, illegal catches were higher than legal ones, and stocks were edging towards collapse. As the fishery floundered, toothfish fans in the foodservice industry began to have second thoughts.
The ethical supermarket chain Whole Foods Market halted sales, while more than 700 US chefs joined forces with environmental groups for the "Take a pass" campaign.

By the late 1990s, illegal catches were higher than legal ones, and stocks were edging towards collapse.

Toothfish was off the menu.

Chasing down the last of the pirates

When the Thunder ran, Captain Hammarstedt gave chase.

It was to be the start of what would become the longest pursuit of an illegal fishing vessel in history. Hammarstedt's ship, the Bob Barker, operated by the environmental organisation Sea Shepherd, doggedly pursued the Thunder for almost 19,000km across three oceans, enduring pack ice, icebergs, huge waves and a near collision.

Three months into the chase, the Barker was briefly joined by another vessel, the Atlas Cove. The Cove belonged to Austral fisheries, a founder member of the Coalition of Legal Toothfish Operators, COLTO.

The fishing industry teaming up with group of self-professed eco-vigilantes might have raised a few eyebrows at the time, but it was nothing new for Austral, whose decade-long collaborations through COLTO with other legitimate operators, government agencies, conservation groups and Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources had reduced the levels of illegal toothfish poaching significantly.

Hammarstedt doggedly pursued the Thunder for almost 19,000km across three oceans, enduring pack ice, icebergs, huge waves and a near collision.

Over 50 poachers had been whittled down to six, of which the Thunder was the most notorious.

The hunters had become the hunted.

The tide begins to turn

Formed in 2003, COLTO works to eliminate illegal fishing for toothfish and to promote sustainable toothfish fisheries.

Martin Exel, its former chair, puts the coalition's success in achieving these aims down to its cooperative nature.

"You can't underestimate the importance of collaboration between governments, retailers, scientists and (otherwise rival) fisheries. Although we compete in the marketplace, there's strong recognition that we need to work together as an industry on the water to overcome bigger issues."

Martin Exel, former chair of COLTO

Not all of those bigger issues are centred on illegal fishing. At the time of COLTO's founding, there was concern that the way in which toothfish were caught was endangering the future of seabirds like albatrosses and petrels. The bait the fishery used on its longlines was often frozen, and since ice floats, it would stay on the surface until thawed.

When birds tried to eat the frozen morsels, they would often become hooked, and get dragged below the surface as the line sank. So large was the issue that around 100,000 albatrosses were being killed each year, threatening previously healthy populations.

Their plight even attracted the attention of Prince Charles, who wrote to the UK's then environment minister, Elliot Morley, saying:

"I particularly hope that the illegal fishing of the Patagonian toothfish will be high on your list of priorities because, until that trade is stopped, there is little hope for the poor old albatross".

The first certified toothfish fishery

The same year as the letter was sent, one of COLTO's founding members, the South Georgia fishery, became the world's first toothfish fishery to be certified as sustainable to the MSC Fisheries Standard.

Certification coincided with the ratification of The Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels treaty, which committed South Georgia and others to decreasing the numbers of seabird deaths caused by longline fishing.

In short order, the fishery drastically reduced both illegal fishing and the hooking and drowning of birds. "The fishery was particularly quick to eliminate and control [illegal] fishing,", says Martin Exel. "They led the way in demonstrating sustainable fisheries management for other toothfish fisheries to follow"

"The MSC certification process marks a step-change in the way that fisheries are managed and in how they are perceived by consumers. South Georgia is proud to lead by example. By working with the fishing industry and other stakeholders there is a shared sense of responsibility for demonstrating the highest levels of sustainability."

James Jansen, Government of South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands

The fishery introduced a series of measures, licensing vessels and excluding unlicensed ones, controlling landing sites and barcoding catches to prevent illicit sales. Lines were weighted to make them sink faster, and set only at night, when they're harder to see, and in winter, when birds are not breeding.

As a result, the number of albatrosses accidentally caught by the fishery each year fell from several thousand to single figures.

The changes won plaudits from conservation NGOs and retailers alike, and less than two years after its certification, toothfish from South Georgia returned to Whole Foods shelves.

"Whole Foods Market is thrilled that the MSC has identified a sustainable fishery for this popular fish, and we are excited to offer Chilean sea bass once again,"

said David Pilat, Whole Foods Market National Seafood Coordinator at the time.

"As a supermarket passionate about seeking out catches from well-managed sources, we want to remind shoppers that they have the power to encourage responsible fishing by choosing seafood from fisheries using ocean-friendly methods"

Toothfish bounces back

Having seen the benefits that MSC certification brought to South Georgia, other fisheries soon followed suit.

In 2010, the Ross Sea toothfish fishery became certified, and was joined two years later by both the Macquarie Island and Heard Island and McDonald Islands fisheries.

For David Carter, whose organisation Austral Fisheries operates the fisheries: "The MSC process has driven real improvements in the management of toothfish in the Southern Ocean. Certification has not only helped us to reach new consumers with our product, it has facilitated terrific conversations with policymakers, commercial partners and stakeholder groups, ensuring a positive future for our fisheries."

Martin Exel agrees: "Certification provides any fishery with a useful new perspective on the sustainability of its operations. There are always improvements that can be made and we have found the recommendations made by MSC to be very useful in guiding our improvements."
In 2013, the SARPC toothfish fishery also became certified, and was joined a year later by a sixth: the Falkland Island fishery. In parallel with the South Georgia, the fishery had already introduced several mitigation measures to tackle seabird bycatch and had been so successful that it had reduced albatross mortality to zero.

For Oli Yates, Albatross Task Force Programme Manager for BirdLife International, "to have achieved and maintained minimal bycatch is enormous credit to the management standards of the fisheries department and the dedication of the local company to implement seabird friendly measures. Conservation successes like this are evidence that seabird bycatch can be tackled across entire ocean basins - and MSC certification allows the fishery to demonstrate this success to the world. "

The Thunder goes under

A few months after the Falklands fishery was certified, and a fortnight after the Atlas Cove had briefly joined the chase, it was all over.

The Thunder met its end in the seas off Sao Tome and Principe, close to where the equator and the prime meridian meet. All hands were rescued, but while the captain may not have gone down with his ship, the prospects of the pirates did.

With organisations willing to go to the very ends of the earth to protect the toothfish, the risks no longer outweighed the rewards. Today, none of the so-called "bandit 6" of pirate vessels remain active. Indonesian authorities blew up the last, the Nigerian-flagged Viking, in March 2016.

Back on the menu
"In the early days of the MSC [1997] there was a significant campaign against restaurants selling the fish because of illegal fishing. Fast forward to 2017, and well over 50% of the global toothfish fishery is now certified."
Jim Humphreys, MSC Global Fisheries Coordinator

With illegal fishing at its lowest recorded level and seabird mortality virtually eliminated, consumers are warming to toothfish once more.

The MSC's Chain of Custody Standard has been instrumental in this transformation. Through the use of secure at-sea labelling, supply chain monitoring and DNA testing, the Standard has helped restore consumer confidence in toothfish by ensuring that dinner plates are free from illegal catch.

Partly as a result, in the last year alone, the wholesale price of toothfish in the US has skyrocketed from $6-$33, an increase of 450%.

Thanks to improved management, smarter practices and certification, toothfish is back on the menu.

All images © Tony Fitzsimmons and feature the the MSC certified Falkland Islands toothfish fishery.

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