Idiot Fish: The Night I Ate an Endangered Species

A couple of weeks back, I enjoyed a beautiful dinner at Kubo's next to a table of hilariously drunk Japanese people boisterously eating sashimi off a giant wooden boat that acted as a centerpiece/serving tray, while my dining companion and I marveled at our smaller -- yet no less impressive -- arrangement of sashimi that we'd ordered omakase-style. In other words, whatever Chef Kiyoka Ito wanted to send out that night.

I'd also been interested in something else I spotted on Kubo's specials menu: idiot fish, or kinki. I'd tried all of the other fish Kubo's had listed as specials, but never idiot fish. So I decided to give it a shot.

It turns out that idiot fish is endangered. I didn't find this out until long after I'd reveled in the fish's soft, pale pink flesh, the same glossy color of the inside of a conch shell, and long after I'd eaten its head and bones fried to a golden crisp. I mourned eating the poor endangered idiot fish on Twitter the next day.

"If everyone looked at the IUCN redlist, there'd be a lot less fish eaten," responded P.J. Stoops, local fish expert at Louisiana Foods, who also runs the company's weekly Total Catch Market. "That's how much trouble a LOT of stocks are in," he continued.

Stoops was referring to the International Union for Conservation of Nature's red list, or list of threatened fish species. It's updated once a year and is so large -- as Stoops mentioned -- that it cannot even be printed: The red list for 2010 contained more than 49,000 species and subspecies of threatened fish.

The Red List entry for the idiot fish -- also called Sebastes fasciatus -- is short and sweet, with few details. It was first assessed as endangered in 1996 and is native to cold climates like the coasts of Greenland, Iceland, Canada and our own icy waters up north. And, being classified as "endangered," it only has two more steps of classification before going extinct: "critically endangered" and "extinct in the wild."

Critically endangered fish species include the northern and southern bluefin tuna that's so popular in sushi restaurants like Kubo's. Like the Chinese and their beloved shark fin soup, the Japanese are eating tuna to death.

So why are these fish still for sale?

Often, as with the giant carp (or giant catfish), people will eat the fish to brink of extinction until it's protected by law. Conservation efforts in the case of the giant carp have led to it being named the national fish of Cambodia -- where citizens feasted on the wildly popular freshwater fish until it became endangered 20 years ago -- and protected by Cambodian federal law. But carp, as shown, is a popular fish.

Idiot fish? Not so much. Nor is it "critically endangered," as the carp is. Before a fish moves into that critically endangered category, it doesn't have much chance of catching the popular eye in order to be saved. In other words, you have to exploit the fish as much as possible -- potentially moving it into a depth of endangerment from which it may never recover -- before the fish is deemed worthy of saving. And although some countries may place quotas on how many fish can be caught or sold in a year, that doesn't stop the species from being fished out of the water elsewhere -- legally or not.

However, we -- as diners and consumers -- have options. We have the option not to buy endangered fish at the store or order it at dinner. To help, the Monterey Bay Aquarium even put together an app for that (you see, there really is an app for everything), available for iPhones and Androids.

The Seafood Watch application constantly updates its list of which popular fish are currently endangered by placing them into "best choice," "good alternatives" or "avoid" categories. It lists seafood by its popular American names in one guide, and by its Japanese or "sushi" name in another.

The poor idiot fish isn't well-known enough to rate in the Seafood Watch app at all, but plenty of popular species are on the "avoid" list: Chilean seabass, orange roughy, marlin, cod, monkfish and -- of course -- tuna. Not one to leave users at loose ends, the Seafood Watch app does recommend sustainable and non-endangered alternatives, however.

The Seafood Watch app is a good start, and a handy item to have, even if it only lists the more well-known fish species. To get serious about which fish to avoid, set aside some time and read through the most recent Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nation's The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture report, which showed that more than 30 percent of the world's fish stocks were in serious trouble.

"To really blow your mind, read the FAO 2010 World Fisheries Report," said Stoops. "Two hundred pages of horror."

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