A primeval predator patrols the dark, icy waters of Antarctica’s Ross Sea, antifreeze proteins coursing through its blood. An icon of the Southern Ocean, the Antarctic toothfish is a crucial link in the rich food web of the planet’s most pristine marine ecosystem. Since 1996, it has also become prized by fisheries, which call its meat “white gold.”
In the 2011–12 season, 15 ships from six nations pulled roughly 3,500 metric tons of Antarctic toothfish from the Ross Sea. (Eight nations have vessels registered to fish there.) More than half the catch ends up in the U.S., where it’s sold (along with Pata-gonian toothfish) as the more palatably named Chilean sea bass for upwards of $25 a pound. Toothfish grow only about one centimeter per year, so scientists fear the species can’t withstand the pressure.
At stake are all Antarctic fauna. “Taking the toothfish out will totally change the ecosystem,” says marine ecologist David Ainley—an impact that will ripple down to prey like silverfish and up to predators like whales and seals. “The Ross Sea represents the last continental-shelf ecosystem on Earth that has not been trashed by humans,” Ainley says. “And it’s being plucked for a luxury item that few people can afford to consume.” Protect the toothfish, save the sea.
This article originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of Popular Science.