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How 'Jurassic Park' Nearly Drove the Chilean Sea Bass to Extinction

The tale of how one line in a dinosaur movie led to the gross overfishing of a cheap, aspirationally named toothfish is pretty crazy. Hold on to your butts.

by Alex Swerdloff
Jun 12 2015, 7:30pm

Let me take you back to 1993's Jurassic Park—the first film in a series that pays homage to all things prehistoric (as well as the zany genius of Wayne Knight)—just in time for today's much-anticipated release of Jurassic World. Close your eyes, bust out your Doc Martens, and smell the dust on that VHS tape as you remember this nostalgic scene:

The frenzied, bellowed moos of a cow ring out, as it is being lifted by a crane and dropped behind a violently shaking canopy of palm trees, only to be fed to unseen, ancient predators awaiting their mid-morning snack. As this is happening, Dr. John Hammond, CEO and creator of Jurassic Park, apparently finds it to be so mouth-watering that it gets him thinking about lunch.

"Alejandro's prepared a delightful meal for us. Chilean sea bass, I believe," Hammond declares.

It took just this one line to alter the pantries of diners the world over.

READ: This Is What Dinosaur Meat Tasted Like

Overnight, global attention shifted to the unknown, underwater denizen that is the Chilean sea bass. The miniscule cameo was evidently so compelling to diners, some claim that the brief mention in the blockbuster film was a primary contributor to the tempestuous and unsustainable overfishing of Chilean sea bass two decades ago. Hell, there's even a Twitter account for the fictional Chef Alejandro.

With today's release of the fourth installment in the franchise, we decided to take a look back and find out whether a movie could have really lead to the endangerment of one of God's great creatures.

First, let's answer this pressing question: what exactly is Chilean sea bass?

Well, apparently the ad-men who marketed Crystal Pepsi have nothing on the dudes who marketed Chilean sea bass. Hilariously, the fish in question is not a species of sea bass and is also not necessarily Chilean. According to the US Department of Commerce, it is "a deep-water species also known as toothfish, caught in southern ocean waters near and around Antarctica." Each fish can live up to 50 years and grows to over 200 pounds. It has sweet white meat, and has taken off as a delicacy embraced by chefs worldwide—particularly Japanese chefs like Nobu Matsuhisa, who is famous for his pan-fusion variations of the fish.

In the late 90s and early aughts, Chilean sea bass went from being pretty much unknown to being the chicest of fish, served in upscale restaurants all over the country. As a result, Chilean sea bass stocks were depleted. Environmental groups then paired up with chefs for a campaign titled "Take a Pass on Chilean Sea Bass," which encouraged chefs to exile the fish from their menus until populations recovered.

Today, Chilean sea bass is not endangered, but it is vulnerable. In the words of the experts, "large, unreported catches from illegal fishing of this valuable fish has made effective management difficult." Legal harvesting in the Antarctic management area is overseen by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, who have found that some fisheries act in a legal and responsible manner, but many others don't. I'm a bit loath to mix metaphors between various Hollywood franchises, but let's just say countless rogue fishermen have been caught getting their Captain Jack Sparrow on.

Photo via Flickr user Richard Lee

Chilean sea bass. Photo via Flickr user Richard Lee.

Anyway, why did things get crazy around the turn of the century? Could the depletion of the Chilean sea bass stock really have all been because of Jurassic Park? There's no way to know for sure, but don't discount it. Movies can cause big problems for animal life.

Think we're crazy? Let us draw your attention to Exhibit A, the Dalmatian.

It's no secret that our spotted buddy the Dalmatian can be more than a handful once it reaches adult age, but that didn't stop uninformed households across the nation from going out in droves and eagerly adopting countless numbers of them after the 1996 release of 101 Dalmatians. In fact, animal shelters across the country reported a 300 percent increase in their Dalmatian populations a year after the film's release. When asked about the staggering increase, animal control spokesperson John Zobler said officials had tried unsuccessfully to deter households from the impulse purchase and added this: "I do have to attribute some of that to the movie,"

Need another example?

How about I draw your attention to what might very well be considered the grandfather of movie-stemmed animal abuse and endangerment, Jaws. The 1975 thriller—which reached its 40th year anniversary this year—captivated viewers across the world and effectively created the summer blockbuster with its violent portrayal of the great white shark.

The film also effectively villainized sharks everywhere and led to a decrease in the population of shark species on the U.S. eastern seaboard by 50 percent, with some species falling by 90 percent. Dozens of shark-fishing tournaments popped up in the movie's wake, and fisherman everywhere were eager to show off their bravado with shark fin trophies. It was a far cry from the mentality that had prevailed before the film's release, when "there was this perception that sharks had never attacked a human being," said director of the Florida Program for Shark Research, George Burgess.

And then there's clownfish. When Finding Nemo was first released in 2003, clownfish sales soared. Clownfish were already popular, but the movie caused even more kids to want their very own Nemo. Following the film's release, wild clownfish populations dropped by 75 percent, causing one scientist from the University of Cumbria in Australia to call for their addition to the endangered species list. Reefs that housed clownfish were also destroyed as poachers tried to drive the fish out. The scientist said, "My message to kids who loved the film is simple: Tell your parents to leave Nemo in the sea where he belongs."

Don't even get me started on owls and Harry Potter.

In short, movies can negatively impact the animal world in ways we never would expect. Although it is unlikely that Chilean sea bass will make another appearance in Jurassic World, maybe we should all be relieved that dinosaurs are already extinct.

At least our movie-going habits didn't cause their demise. We're free to fantasize about what they tasted like with reckless abandon.