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A fish story: Navigating seafood choices

Chefs have organized a boycott of Chilean sea bass, which is being depleted. Campaigns to protect fish aren't new, but the real question is: Do they make a difference?

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Imagine you're at a restaurant. You study the menu. Nothing speaks to you. Then the waiter comes along, eager to announce the specials. He gushes about the filet mignon and the rack of lamb, but the roasted Chilean sea bass with caramelized onions gets his most hearty endorsement. "You've never had Chilean sea bass?" he asks. "You've got to try it! It's a flaky, white fish that is exceptionally tender and moist. People love it."

Sound irresistible? Don't take the bait, say conservationists, environmentalists, and a growing number of American chefs. They are campaigning against consumption of Chilean sea bass almost as energetically as President Bush campaigned for brother Jeb before last week's election.

This South American specialty has been all the rage for about the past six years (and especially from 1999 until 2001, when consumption doubled). Unfortunately, its popularity has also been its downfall. Pirate fishing fleets often catch about 10 times as much as the legal limits.

To save the fish, campaigns such as "Take a Pass on Chilean Seabass," spearheaded by the National Environmental Trust (NET), have become increasingly common. Many factors are at play: a world population that continues to swell, stepped-up publicity about the health benefits of seafood, and consumers who are more conscious of food sources and savvier about making ecologically friendly choices.

You might remember all the talk about dolphin-safe tuna. Or Chesapeake Bay rockfish. And more recently, the widespread campaign to "Give Swordfish a Break." These fish have recovered, more or less.

Marine biologist Ellen Pikitch thinks this grass-roots action to protect Chilean sea bass is just like the one that helped save the swordfish. "That campaign was instrumental in getting international agreement on a rebuilding plan for North Atlantic swordfish," she says, "an agreement that is now showing big dividends."

But still, not everyone is convinced that these campaigns - or boycotts -have a lasting impact on fish populations.

Are boycotts effective?

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