Hooked Pirates, Poaching, and the Perfect Fish

G. Bruce Knecht

Rodale Books




328 Pages



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Hooked explores the ways our culinary tastes have all manner of unintended consequences for the world around us. It tells the story of the poaching of the Patagonian toothfish (known to Americans as "Chilean Sea Bass") and is built around the pursuit of the illegal fishing vessel Viarsa by an Australian patrol boat, Southern Supporter, in one of the longest pursuits in maritime history.

Author G. Bruce Knecht chronicles how an obscure fish merchant in California "discovered" and renamed the fish, kicking off a worldwide craze for a fish no one had ever heard of and everyone had to have. With demand exploding, pirates were only too happy to satisfy our taste for Chilean Sea Bass. From the world's treacherous waters to luxury restaurant kitchens, Hooked is a revelatory popular history.


Praise for Hooked

"This book by Wall Street Journal writer Knecht is really a tale of high-seas adventure disguised as an expos of fish poaching. The Patagonian toothfish, better known to chefs and consumers as Chilean sea bass, was ‘discovered' in the late 1970s and has since become seriously overfished. While some countries have attempted to set quotas and protect their own fisheries, pirate factory ships flying flags of convenience have not hesitated to poach toothfish from wherever they can find them. Hooked tells the riveting story of an Australian patrol boat's chase over thousands of miles of treacherous, stormy, ice-filled Antarctic waters of a Spanish-owned, Uruguayan-flagged poacher eventually captured near South Africa in a demonstration of international cooperation. Interspersed with this saga are chapters telling how toothfish became sea bass, caught on as a hot menu item, and became the target of high-stakes, frequently illegal fishing operations . . . Recommended for public, high school, and college libraries."—Margaret Rioux, MBL/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute Library, Massachusets, Library Journal

"The high seas are still as wild as any frontier town, Wall Street Journal writer Knecht demonstrates in his story about a pursuit through the unpredictable waters of the Southern Ocean. In August 2001, the Australian patrol boat Southern Supporter spotted an unidentified fishing vessel in its waters. When the patrol crept closer, its quarry made fast tracks toward Antarctica. Reasonably sure the vessel was poaching toothfish, more recently known as Chilean sea bass, the customs officials gave chase. Knecht relates this adventure as if he were one of the participants, then cannily cuts the action to Chile. In 1977, Los Angeles fish merchant Lee Lantz was visiting Valparaiso, searching for something new to sell his customers. He spied Patagonian toothfish, a heretofore non-commercial species that appealed to him because of its firm texture, white flesh and buttery fat content. The unappetizing name would have to go, though: Lantz rechristened it Chilean sea bass. At first he could only peddle it to the fish-finger industry, but in time, it became the darling of high-end restaurants. A market was born, writes Knecht, and another fishery depleted. He cuts back to the chase, providing gripping descriptions that beautifully capture what it's like to battle 60-foot waves and 50-knot winds in a boat. Eventually, the patrol boat commandeered the fishing vessel with the aid of a private South African security force. (The court case tanked, however.) Knecht deftly brings into play such figures as fisheries biologists, big-time criminal seafood operators and chef Rick Moonen, whose signature dish was miso-glazed Chilean sea bass. An exciting, cautionary tale of overfishing."—Kirkus Reviews

"The Patagonian toothfish—which can live up to 50 years and grow to six feet long—is an ugly creature considered too bland for eating by most South Americans. Its high fat content, codlike texture and lack of a fishy taste convinced a Los Angeles fish merchant who found the toothfish in Chile in 1977 that, given an exotic new name, it would do quite well in America. By 1998, 'Chilean sea bass' had become the hottest restaurant craze: '[e]veryone had to have it.' Knecht weaves a parallel plot, which takes place in the South Indian Ocean in 2003, where an Australian patrol boat is hunting down a pirate vessel for stealing toothfish. The chase takes them thousands of nautical miles away to dangerous Antarctic waters and involves South African mercenaries and a dramatic boarding in dangerous seas. Knecht's gripping book flips between the commercial history of the toothfish—just the latest of many culinary fads that end up threatening an ocean species—and the chase, which illuminates the practically lawless world of commercial fishing, where factory boats with vast dragnets can devastate a population in just a couple of years, a practice the author calls 'the marine equivalent of strip mining.'"—Publishers Weekly, (starred review)
"Hooked is a fish story, a global whodunit, a courtroom drama, and a critically important ecological message all rolled into one."—Tom Brokaw, author of The Greatest Generation

Reviews from Goodreads



  • G. Bruce Knecht

  • G. Bruce Knecht is a writer for The Wall Street Journal. His work has also been published in The Atlantic Monthly and the The New York Times Magazine.