Hooked on sea bass 

It’s tough to be a good conservationist in the modern millennium. Every year, the list of things one shouldn’t do and buy and eat keeps growing. This coming year, one conservation-minded Missoulian, Mac Donofrio, wants to add the Patagonian toothfish to the local do-not-eat list. The toothfish, which clever marketers rechristened Chilean sea bass more than a decade ago, suffers from illegal over-fishing by poachers, and environmentalists fear they’re being eaten to extinction. The Australian government has even deployed machine-gunner ships to patrol the Antarctic for fish pirates.

Donofrio has been pestering local Missoula eateries making a case for why the fish should disappear from local menus.

“[Until recently] I wasn’t even aware there was a problem…What’s good about this issue is, unlike a lot of environmental problems, this is so easily solved,” says Donofrio. “We just stop eating it.”

For the most part, Missoula’s restaurant industry is already moving away from serving the fish. But according to many restaurant owners, it’s impossible to create a menu that doesn’t get someone up in arms.

“We’re aware of the problems of over-fishing and farm fishing and we do what we can,” says Hob Nob owner Justin Alterowitz. “But people always have a problem with something you serve.”

Alterowitz adds that he agrees with Donofrio’s assertion that restaurants are serving less and less Chilean sea bass due to the efforts of watchdogs like Donofrio.

One restaurant owner, who requested anonymity, says that Donofrio doesn’t have all the facts and is a bit of a crackpot. The owner says that he’s taken Donofrio’s information to his distributors and they’ve refuted it.

“We buy our Chilean sea bass from distributors that don’t get their fish from pirates,” says the anonymous owner. “The solution to this problem is knowing and trusting your distributors and supporting the legal fishing of these fish.”

But it’s not only illegal taking of the fish that’s decimating populations, it’s that fishermen are taking them before they reproduce. While Donofrio is happy that more Missoulians are getting hip to the fish’s plight, he advises people to be wary of restaurants claiming they don’t serve the fish. Often restaurants will serve it in season but not name it on their menus, he says.

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