Most consumers would be hard pressed to name the last time they ate Patagonian toothfish or its cousin, the Antarctic toothfish. Chilean sea bass, however, is instantly recognizable. The melt-in-your mouth delicacy is served in many of the best restaurants and costs around $15 per pound (ground beef, by comparison costs $3.80 per pound). The funny thing is, toothfish and Chilean sea bass are exactly the same thing.
Before the late 1970s, Chilean sea bass did not exist. Antarctic and Patagonian toothfish did, but few people paid them any mind. As global fishing stocks dwindled, however, fisherman turned to longlines, which run deeper underwater. In South American waters, these longlines pulled up an increasing number of toothfish, though this ugly, unknown species of fish was usually thrown back.
Enter Lee Latnz. An American fish dealer who specialized in bringing new fish to market, he stumbled across the Patagonian toothfish in Chile. White, fatty, and without a strong “fishy” taste, he thought it might do well in America. As bycatch, it was also incredibly cheap.
Dubbing it Chilean sea bass—Chilean since it sounds more exotic than South American or Pacific, and bass because it would be more familiar to the American consumer (toothfish are actually part of the cod family), Lantz set about selling his new product. Initially he failed. At the beginning, his only buyers were interested in making cheaper takeout food or fish sticks. By the 1990s, however, Chilean sea bass started to catch on. Revered by chefs for its versatility, it became increasingly popular and found its way onto menus at world’s finest restaurants. In 2001, Bon Appetit Magazine named it their “Dish of the Year.”
As popularity grew, so did demand—and prices. Soon conservationists warned that the global population of Chilean sea bass was dwindling to dangerously low levels and limited the annual catch. The National Environmental Trust reported that 80% of the world’s Chilean sea bass was illegally caught by fisherman like Antonio Garcia Perez, who fled from authorities through 4,000 miles of rough ocean in an attempt to keep almost 96 tons ($1 million) worth of illicit fish.
Continued overfishing and dwindling toothfish populations led to increasing alarm. Early in 2002, the “Take a Pass on Chilean Sea Bass” campaign began in Northern California. A concerted effort by more than 60 restaurants to take the now-endangered fish off of their menus, the campaign spread quickly throughout the United States. It was wildly effective. Consuming the once fashionable fish was stigmatized, causing demand to drop significantly. By 2014, stocks had replenished and Chilean sea bass was one of the most sustainable fish in the world, with 70% of the global catch meeting the stringent MSC certification. Now sustainable, the fish is again popular.
The right branding can make or break a product. The Chilean sea bass story is not unique. Lobster underwent a similar reinvention—in the 19th century, eating the now-popular crustacean was associated with “poverty and degradation." Peanuts were first planted in large numbers in the American South not to eat, but to replenish the soil for cotton. They are now the 12th most valuable cash crop in the US. The taste and texture of the Patagonian and Antarctic varieties of toothfish have been exactly the same for the last 50 years, and yet demand has fluctuated heavily. A more consumer-friendly brand and celebrity endorsements popularized the fish in the 90s. A negative brand campaign alienated those same consumers just as quickly. Whether it’s toothfish, seabass, lobster, peanuts, toothpaste, or soda, the story is just as important as the product. That’s why successful firms don't just make quality products, they integrate them with quality marketing and storytelling.