Sea bass: the superstar of the seas

It's delicious, plentiful and increasingly on the menuin Britain's homes and restaurants. So why does sea bass give ecologists a bad taste?

Its silver scales lend a sheen of sophistication to a restaurant menu, where it is common enough to be requested but rare enough to remain a treat. Celebrity chefs cannot stop praising its flavour. And, these days, you will find this fish on the shelves of supermarkets, its diminutive proportions enabling it to be served whole on a dinner plate.

For so long a species praised loudest on the Continent, sea bass has become one of the most popular fish in the UK. Sales have powered ahead year after year. The latest figures from Seafish, the marine fishing authority, show that sales of bass have more than trebled since 2005, jumping from £7m to £22m today.

The rise was the biggest of any fish bar pollack, whose sales quadrupled largely because Alaskans are catching it in such quantities that it has become a commercial rival to cod for use in mass-market products such as fish fingers.

Our favourite fish remain, in order, tuna, salmon, cod, haddock, mackerel and trout, with prawns, scampi, mussels and scallops our seafood of choice. But, by value, bass is now the 14th most popular fish, just behind sole and plaice – and it's rising fast. While tuna and cod remain respectable dinner-party offerings, the more discerning consumer is increasingly opting for something just that little bit different. So why do we so enjoy the handsome relative of the grouper family?

Television chefs have acted as its chief promoters, the motorcycle outriders that have driven bass into the consciousness of the home cook. Rick Stein suggests poached whole sea bass with a dill and potato salad. Nigella Lawson has it barbecued with preserved lemons. Gordon Ramsay? That'll be pan-fried with broccoli and sorrel sauce. Jamie Oliver served sea bass fillets slashed and baked on a bed of mushroom potatoes to Tony Blair and the Italian Prime Minister, Massimo D'Alema, at an Anglo-Italian summit in 1999, the very beginning of the transformation of sea bass from piscine struggler to marine superstar.

The fishing industry and the major grocers – Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury's and Morrisons – promote bass as an alternative to Britain's traditional fish favourites. "Sea Bass has a delightful taste that stands on its own, but it also works with stronger flavours and is particularly popular in Thai cuisine," says a Seafish spokesman.

"Fish from 300g to 600g are ideal for simply gutting, scaling, stuffing with herbs and baking or grilling, while skin-on fillets are great for grilling or pan-frying."

There are a few species of bass, and all but one of them have nothing to do with the sea bass we eat in the UK. The striped American bass is a farmed freshwater fish, without an earthy freshwater taste. The Chilean sea bass is a marketing invention for the scary-looking and altogether less appealing-sounding Patagonian toothfish, itself now overfished.

In Europe the spotted sea bass Dicentrarchus punctatus is found only in the Mediterranean – and not on British supermarket shelves. The bass you have eaten here will have almost certainly have been Dicentrarchus labrax, the European sea bass, which inhabits waters all the way from the Mediterranean to the UK. Not so long ago, the Channel Islands were its farthest reach but now, as sea temperatures have risen, it lives in significant numbers as far north as Scotland's Western Isles.

Sea bass fry spawned in the English Channel head back on currents to estuaries in England, where, protected by law with no-catch zones, they have thrived – a rare conservation success story. A night-time predator, the spiny-finned bass is voraciously cannibalistic, eating its smaller relatives alongside other species such as mackerel, anchovy, whitebait, sprats and crustaceans.

Fishermen are just as predatory. They catch bass three ways, with a varying degree of sustainability. Smaller-scale fishing is done with the use of either a type of net, known as gill-netting, or via hooks lined either vertically or horizontally.

The third method, trawling, scoops up large quantities of sea bass and is criticised as it often snares dolphins, which chase after the shoals. Some fishermen allegedly maim dolphins damaged in their nets in the hope that they will sink to the seabed and never be found. But dead dolphins regularly wash up on West Country beaches, and for this reason some conservationists recommend that people avoid trawled sea bass altogether. The corpses of 29 dolphins have been found on the beaches of South-west England so far this year, according to the latest estimates. A further 80 were found in 2007.

"It is a horrid way for these dolphins to die and you can see that when they come ashore," says Mark Simmons, science director at the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society. "Fishermen are getting more adept at hiding the evidence and what we see on land is only a proportion of the problem."

Most sea bass eaten in the UK is farmed hundreds of miles away in the Mediterranean, with Greece and Turkey the largest producers. According to the latest statistics, we ate 8,700 tons of wild sea bass in 2005, compared with 80,000 tons of the farmed variety. In large open-sea cages, the fish are grown to a specified size and fed on wild fish ground into pellets.

The Marine Conservation Society, Britain's biggest marine charity, says that it has been unable to glean enough information about the environmental practices of these fish farms, and so awards farmed sea bass a poor four out of five in its environmental impact ratings, where one is the best. Dawn Purchase, of the MCS, says that despite repeated requests she has been unable to discover whether waste from the fish cages is harming other aquatic life in the neighbouring areas of the Mediterranean.

But Seafish insists that the spawning population of wild sea bass can support demand. "Since there has been no overall stock depletion or stocking with sea bass in UK waters, there are no related nature conservation or management issues," it remarks.

Indeed the authority is happy to recommend ways of eating the fish. Phil MacMullen, its environment manager, praises its flesh, which he points out is firmer than haddock or cod, suggesting it be seared or wrapped in a foil parcel in the oven. "Sea bass hold their own against a strong stuffing or accompaniment," he says.

He believes the recent surge in popularity of sea bass can be attributed to a variety of factors. "[Sea bass] have had a little more exposure via celebrity chefs recently, and the supermarkets have been [promoting] it as well because farmed sea bass is quite cheap."

Their popularity is not confined to these shores. The French have historically served sea bass grilled whole with fennel, and Scottish boats are now landing their catch in France because they can get the highest prices for their fish on the other side of the Channel. Prices for sought-after fish and seafood are generally higher on the Continent, as European diners put a higher value on their fish than Britons.

That we are moving as a nation from popular species like cod to lesser-known ones like sea bass suggest that British diners, encouraged by the trade and by TV chefs, are learning to appreciate the fruits of the sea around our shores, beyond the occasional brush with the deep-fat frier in the local fish-and-chip shop. But if we continue to eat fish such as haddock and hake, we should think about how and where it has been caught or farmed, say the conservationists and environmental campaigners.

All this presents a conundrum for the average supermarket buyer or restaurant diner. Sea bass is not endangered. But fish stocks can collapse if they become too popular, just as cod did off the Canadian Grand Banks in the early 1990s. As a result of this explosion in popularity, the fish has never recovered.

But we should not be afraid of eating fish – indeed Greenpeace and the Marine Conservation Society publish fish-to-eat guides on their websites. They are not against the enjoyment of fish, but are unequivocably for it, for today, tomorrow and centuries to come.

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