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Brokaw explores the vanishing Chilean sea bass

The former anchor of NBC’s “Nightly News” talks with Bruce Knecht, author of “Hooked,” about the overfishing of this popular seafood.
/ Source: TODAY

From time to time, Tom Brokaw, former anchor of NBC’s “Nightly News,” is going to stop by and bring us a story that captures his attention. This time, he has a fish tale that will likely hit you right where your taste buds are, and might have you looking twice at the menu. For his report for “Today,” Tom talks to G. Bruce Knecht author of “Hooked: A True Story of Pirates, Poaching, and the Perfect Fish,” about how this popular fish has been so overfished that it is now disappearing from the world’s oceans.Have a craving for fish lately? Are you by chance, caught up in the craze for a little Chilean sea bass? Well, if you are, you are not alone. The popularity of this fish has skyrocketed since it was proclaimed by Americans to be “it.”  But in Wall Street Journal reporter Bruce Knecht's new book, “Hooked: A True Story of Pirates, Poaching, and the Perfect Fish,”  he reveals that the American appetite for Chilean sea bass hasn't been a boom for everyone, especially the fish.Chilean sea bass, it's been called the “perfect” fish, but there is a dirty, little secret many patrons don't know ... It's not really sea bass, and not really Chilean anymore. Its real name is a lot less glamorous: the Patagonia toothfish.

Tom Brokaw: [Hooking a Chilean sea bass] “The fact is, you can see why restaurants and fish merchants love it; I mean it's loaded with white fleshy fish.”

Bruce Knecht: “And you can feel the oil … you know, it's almost as if it's marinated. That's what chefs like about it.  That's why it cooks so well.”

This is about as good a fish as you can get. Chilean sea bass is so popular it now sells for more than $10 a pound. It once sold for $1 a pound.

Brokaw: “Is all of this a tribute to the genius of marketing, taking an ugly fish called the Patagonia toothfish and giving it a dressed up name like Chilean sea bass?”

Knecht: “It really is, because the guy who discovered this fish back in 1977, he found it in Chile where people wouldn't even eat it. It's an ugly-looking fish.”

Chefs soon discovered the fish could be prepared in a variety of ways - and it quickly became a hit in some of the country's best restaurants. The toothfish lives deep in the cold southern oceans and not so long ago the supply was plentiful. But its popularity quickly led to over fishing — widespread fish piracy — and worries it could become extinct.

Brokaw: “Is the Patagonia toothfish, in a way, to mix the metaphors here, the canary in the coal mine telling us what we need to know about what’s going on with the stock of large fish in the oceans all around the world?”

Knecht: “In a way, it is. It’s kind of a story we hear about, but we don't really believe it.”

International fishing agencies tried to crack down on toothfish pirates at sea. In his book, Knecht describes a three week long chase by the Australian fish police across the southern end of the earth -- through icebergs -- and wild seas for four thousand miles. Eventually, the pirates were taken into custody, ending a very expensive, 21-day chase.

Brokaw: “Three weeks altogether.”Knecht: “Three weeks.”Brokaw: “And they caught them?”

Knecht: “They eventually caught them. They brought them back. They faced trial twice.  First time it was a mistrial. But they got off in the end. To actually get evidence that means somebody is fishing illegally, how do you do that? The fish don't have DNA that tells you exactly where they came from.”Brokaw: “Is part of the problem that consumers don't really see the disappearing fish stock?  It's out of sight, out of mind for them?”

Knecht: “Everybody talks about the world getting smaller. But there's also a global disconnect. It used to be more fish that were caught in some nearby body of water. Now they're coming from the bottom of the earth.”

As long as people want the fish on their table and there’s money to be made, fisherman will deliver.

Brokaw: [Standing in front of a fish] “So, if I could fill up my trawler with Patagonia toothfish like this, how much would it be worth?”

Knecht: “Well, if your trawler was like the trawler I write about, you would have 300 tons of headed, detailed, gutted fish, and that would be worth about $3.5 million.”

Brokaw: “It's like Willy Sutton said about bank robbery. You go to this because that's where the money is.”

Knecht: “Absolutely.”