Toothfish & Chips in the South Atlantic

The menu read “local fish and chips, mushy peas, tartar sauce.” Once seated in a cozy dining room, I looked out the broad windows on a grey, cold day spitting rain. Earlier, I’d strolled up the main street of the little town in which I found myself, admiring the bright flower gardens of the quaint cottages that lined the street. I’d posed in front of the cheery red phone box topped with the British crown, just outside the equally cheery red-painted door of the post office. That afternoon, I’d drunk a pint of ale at the inviting Victory Bar, which featured a British-flagged banner outside that read “TLC Guaranteed.” So when it came to dinner that night, I ducked back and ordered the local fish and chips. And it was delicious – flaky and moist inside, crispy and crunchy outside, with a flavorful tartar sauce and bright green peas on the side. But the fish in this fish and chips was not the traditional cod or haddock, or even pollock. It was Chilean seabass, also known by the less-appetizing name of Patagonian toothfish. And I was eating it not in the British Isles but in the Falkland Islands (Malvinas), practically as far south as you can go in the South Atlantic without hitting Antarctica. About the only thing most people know about these islands is that Argentina and England fought a bloody war over the archipelago in the 1980s. Today, about 3,000 people reside in the Falklands, 2,000 or so in the capital, Stanley, and the rest, mostly sheep farmers, in remote “camps” throughout the hundreds of islands that form the archipelago. I was there for the first time, visiting with colleagues from the WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society), where I oversee our conservation work in the Americas. A few decades ago, through a generous donation from a New York philanthropist, WCS became the owner of two of the uninhabited islands in the archipelago, Grand Jason and Steeple Jason Islands. When I say uninhabited, I mean by people. There is ample wildlife but no residents on either location – only a small, snug house on Steeple Jason that serves as a research station and tourist lodge for the few hundred intrepid souls who make it to this far corner of the island chain. Our trip to Steeple Jason was an epic example of how challenging the weather and logistics can be for conservation work or ecotourism in the South Atlantic. Merely getting to Stanley involved a 10-hour flight from New York to Santiago, Chile; a 4-hour flight from Santiago to Punta Arenas in Chilean Patagonia; and a 3-hour flight from Punta Arenas to Mount Pleasant, the British military base that doubles as the transit hub for residents and visitors traveling into and out of the Falklands. Once through immigration and off the military base, Stanley is about an hour drive across the largest island, East Falkland. The reward at the end of this arduous journey: Sitting alone on an island amid the world’s largest nesting colony of black-browed albatross, where hundreds of thousands of the majestic seabirds are perched on conical nests built of guano and seawater, lovingly tending their adorable fluffball chicks. The Falkland Islands (Malvinas), especially the western islands of the archipelago where the Jason Islands are found, are the seasonal home of some of the most extraordinary wildlife aggregations in the world, including not only albatross but also gentoo and rockhopper penguins; the endemic striated caracara (or Johnny rook, as they are known locally); skuas; cormorants and petrels; as well as fur seals, sea lions, dolphins, and whales. The island chain is bathed by the Malvinas current, cold and rich in nutrients, which travels north from Antarctica and circulates around the islands before moving along the edge of the continental shelf off Argentina’s shore. There, it encounters the Brazil current heading south. The meeting of these waters results a highly productive zone that attracts an abundant marine life that comes to feed. The lack of human development in the islands and the rich food source found in these currents are the principal reasons for the wildlife spectacles we were privileged to see. These nutrient-heavy waters are also the source of between 50 and 60 percent of the Falkland Islands GDP. According to the Government’s official website, the introduction of fisheries management in the 1980s transformed the Islands’ economy, rendering them financially self-sufficient from Britain in all areas except defense and external affairs. The fishery, while not large in global terms, accounts for about 75 percent (some 200,000 tons) of the world’s catch of the two main species of squid (ilex and loligo). Other target species include hake, whiting (transformed by Japanese fishing fleets into surimi), rock cod, and Patagonian toothfish. Fisheries for some of these species use trawls, jiggers, and longlines notorious for the incidental mortality they can cause to dolphins, seals, whales, and seabirds that are attracted to the catch, get tangled in the fishing gear, or are hooked by the tackle. WCS’s long term commitment to conserving the wildlife of the Jason Islands means that we must monitor the status of the wildlife populations on the islands and understand and respond to the threats they face both when nesting ashore (easier) and in the open sea (more challenging). Long-term monitoring data collected by our researchers, our partner the local NGO Falklands Conservation, and long-time resident and esteemed naturalist Ian Strange, show that while albatross and penguin populations have cycled up and down over time, the birds are currently thriving. However, two diffuse threats now exist, and we had come to talk with representatives of government, civil society, research institutions, and local communities to understand if WCS should be taking more concerted action to ensure the health of the wildlife populations in our charge in the face of these potential threats. The first of these threats is climate change, which is affecting ocean temperature and pH and therefore the distribution of species in the oceans, including the prey that penguins and other seabirds depend on. For example, through her long-term studies of penguins at Punta Tombo, Argentina, our colleague Dee Boersma has demonstrated that Magellanic penguin populations are progressively having to forage further north along the South American coast – more than 200 miles along the coast of Patagonia since the 1960’s – at the beginning of the breeding season each year, in what she and her fellow researchers interpret as a response to climate change. The second threat is industrial fishing, which can affect seabirds and marine mammals both directly (longlines, trawl nets) or indirectly (competition for food). Black-browed albatross are an endangered species according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, and since two-thirds of the population of these birds nest in the Falklands, and several hundred thousand of those nest on our islands, we wanted to learn more. What was the condition of the Falklands fishery and was it environmentally responsible? Was the catch sustainable – not only in terms of maintaining fish stocks but also by leaving enough food for wildlife? Was it impacting “our” birds in some way? We learned that the Falkland Islands government has taken well-respected measures to introduce fisheries reforms such as total catch licenses and long-term arrangements that incentivize fishing boats to invest in sustainable fishing practices. Government officials we spoke to clearly understood that financial sustainability requires environmental sustainability if the economy, for which the fishing industry is hugely important, is to thrive. Speaking off the record, however, some environmentalists suggest that more still needs to be done. Still, we can look to Consolidated Fisheries Ltd, which proudly reports that it owns 100 percent of the quota of Patagonian toothfish in the Falkland Islands Conservation Zones. Fishing with one vessel, it has adopted improved techniques that include longlines equipped with weights, streamers and umbrella systems to protect birds from getting caught on hooks as the lines are set and then hauled in that have reduced mortality to almost zero. These measures resulted in the Falkland Island longline toothfish fishery becoming the first to be certified as sustainable under the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) Principles and Criteria for Sustainable Fishing. It has also been ranked as one of the three “Best Choice” toothfish fisheries around the world by the Monterrey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program. While I was pleasantly surprised to learn how serious are the efforts of both government and industry to ensure the sustainability of the fisheries, more conservation research is needed to understand where the albatross and other seabirds go to feed when they leave their nesting colonies. Many of them forage outside waters managed by the Falklands government and encounter threats in jurisdictions belonging to Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, and even in international waters. Some of our colleagues from CONICET (the Argentine scientific research institute) have begun doing similar research in Patagonia by equipping seabirds with tiny cameras and monitors to follow them underwater as they travel out from their nesting colonies and dive for food. We need to know whether or not these feeding zones are also the targets of industrial fishing fleets and we need to conduct more research to understand how climate change in the South Atlantic will impact productivity or change the movement of nutrients, and how these alterations will in turn impact the routes birds and marine mammals travel to find food. WCS and other conservation NGOs that comprise the Forum for the Conservation of the Patagonian Sea are among those beginning to conduct this research. As I wrote in my first column for New Worlder, I generally follow the recommendations of Seafood Watch when buying my fish at home. I also wrote that I avoid eating Chilean seabass at all, even from recommended fisheries, because globally the species has been terribly overfished. But I have to admit that after learning about the fisheries practices in the Falklands and finding the fish on the menu to be the most local of products – locavorism in this case trumping my other environmental concerns – I ordered it and enjoyed every delicious bite. Like the residents of many remote and rugged lands, the local Falkland islanders are a self-sufficient people – hard-working, pragmatic, and proud of the community they have created. Their unique culture, an island creole formed by both imported and local influences, is nowhere more perfectly reflected than in that plate of food. As it turns out, what on first glance seemed to be the most British of dishes was in fact the perfect reflection of this unique place.