By KYLE HENCE/ecoRI News contributor
NEWPORT — Who knew? Chilean sea bass is not from Chile, nor is it a bass. Since 1996, fishing vessels from a dozen nations have traversed the world’s most remote sea to catch the Antarctic toothfish.
The fishery lands 3,000 tons annually, selling much of it as “Chilean sea bass,” deceiving customers of high-end restaurants and supermarket chains around the world and threatening “the most pristine marine ecosystem on Earth,” according to the filmmakers behind “The Last Ocean,” which was recently screened at the Casino Theater.
The May 23 screening attracted nearly 300 to the New England premiere of the New Zealand documentary. Both the film and the filmmakers during a post-movie question-and-answer session called for the protection of the Ross Sea, one of the last intact natural environments on the planet. The Ross Sea, which the filmmakers called a “living laboratory,” is 10 times clearer than anywhere on Earth and is home to a penguin species capable of diving deeper than any other and an orca species found nowhere else on the planet.
World-renowned diver Sylvia Earle called the Ross Sea the “last wild place, the last ocean.” The film’s extraordinary cinematography captured the stark beauty and marine life of a place most have not heard of, but is now threatened by overfishing.
“Most of the world’s oceans have been impacted by human activity, but in the Ross Sea we have a chance to do something special,” the film’s director, Peter Young, said. “We can fish it or we can protect it and gift this unique corner of the world to future generations.”
The New Zealand-born film director’s relationship with the Ross Sea began more than 25 years ago when he was working as a dishwasher at the McMurto Station on the southern tip of Ross Island. He was led to filmmaking while working as a fisherman in Alaska. Young’s cinematography has been featured on the BBC, National Geographic and the Discovery Channel.
“The Ross Sea has far greater value as a pristine ecosystem than it does as a fishing ground,” said Young, who has been fighting to protect the Ross Sea the past six years.
The fisheries see things differently — forced to fish further and further south as they deplete northern native species. They point to the Marine Stewardship Council “sustainability” designation and continue to cash in on the luxury market for high-end “Chilean sea bass,” which retails for as high as $25 a pound.
The tide appeared to turn however in 2007, when Safeway became the first supermarket chain to refuse to buy Antarctic toothfish or any other seafood from the Ross Sea. In April, however, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch took toothfish off its “Avoid List” and labeled it a “Good Alternative” to the “Best Choice” black hake or icefish fished from the waters of South America.
Before ordering Chilean sea bass at their favorite restaurant, Young encouraged audience members to ask of its origin, a simple way they can help raise awareness. The filmmakers have formed the Last Ocean Charitable Trust to support the Ross Sea conservation effort.
Concurrently, scientific pressure is building in support of a total fishing ban and permanent protection of the Ross Sea. A group of scientists from around the world are hopeful the Ross Sea will soon become a Marine Protected Area (MPA).
The Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, the international body of 24 countries and the European Union with jurisdiction over the marine life surrounding Antarctica, will meet in July in Germany to discuss the issue.
The screening of “The Last Ocean” was part of NewportFILM’s environmentally themed "Green Screen Series" and was co-sponsored by the Atlantic Cup 2013.