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Sea change

Hooked Pirates, Poaching and the Perfect Fish G. Bruce Knecht Rodale: 278 pp., $24.95

May 21, 2006|John Balzar | John Balzar is a Times staff writer and the author of "Yukon Alone: The World's Toughest Adventure Race."

A high-seas adventure with enough action and suspense to have you holding your breath.

A mystery that untangles the roots of a culinary fad fitfully hatched in and marketed from Los Angeles.

A courtroom thriller.

Proof positive that an objective eye is the most persuasive of all.

Mr. G. Bruce Knecht, take a bow.

Not only is "Hooked: Pirates, Poaching and the Perfect Fish" a rollicking read, it is a relief. And a wonder. For wrapped up in these red-blooded storytelling ingredients is the account of another assault on our planet's troubled environment. And let's face it, conservation writing has become one of our dreariest forms: The sky is falling, oh dear ... fill in the blanks.

In these taut pages, Knecht takes livelier aim at the plundering of a limited resource for the sake of growing appetites. He delivers us, straight ahead and close-in, to an epic sea chase across the fearsome Southern Ocean. In one boat, righteous men are out to get what they want, what they regard as theirs, in this seascape of ice and storm. In the other, righteous men are out to stop them in the name of the law.

The story about the demise of the Patagonian toothfish, an ugly, tasteless creature with an unappealing name, is not so heartening. But the fact that Knecht tells it with such crackling drive and with complete confidence in the good judgment of his readers is.

The Patagonian toothfish is large, dark-skinned and cod-like in appearance. The name comes from its undershot mouth and needle-sharp fangs. It dwells in deep, cold waters -- for purposes of Knecht's story, in the waters of the far Southern Hemisphere. Back in the late 1970s, it was a trash fish caught only incidentally by the commercial fleet that worked out of Valparaiso, Chile. It was thought too oily to be desirable.

But a decline in the catch of other more salable fish, along with some desperate determination by global fish brokers who work the Chile-to-Los Angeles circuit, a dash of ingenuity by seafood marketers and a splash of savory miso glaze in a fancy New York restaurant, and voila, you have the highly desirable, evermore expensive and, of course, deliciously trendy Chilean sea bass.

You can guess what this newfound glamour has meant for the toothfish. Late in the game, as usual, fishery experts have weighed in with the news that this long-lived, slow-growing animal cannot endure the strip-mining of modern commercial fishing. By now, though, the fish has become the rage, commanding exorbitant prices; for fisherman, this is irresistible. Although their reach and budgets are limited, governments have made efforts to "save" the toothfish, joined in the effort by environmental activists and, here and there, responsible chefs too.

But enough. I said that Knecht had confidence in his readers. This book contains no sermon. All the essential elements are there, yes. But if someone is going to take to the soapbox and wag a stern finger, it will have to be you.

Tearing through this page turner is enough to trigger a pinch-me sensation. Wait a minute, am I reading a book about exploitation of our fragile planet in which the writer isn't bashing me over the head with the obvious? Am I learning about the sensibilities of those who fish where they please along with the struggles of those who try to stop them? Am I getting both a story and the story?

You are.

We can wish Knecht good fortune in the hope that others will follow his cue. True enough, not all conservation issues yield the plot and rugged characters of a Jack London high-seas adventure. And it's plain that the most pressing conservation stories, like global warming, don't arrive at easy answers.

But there is something to the notion of casting one's net wider than the didactic, and Knecht proves it. Conservationists will be with him, and who knows who else he will reel in for the sake of an oh-my-goodness tale.

A reporter for the Wall Street Journal as well as an experienced sailor, Knecht's last book was the harrowing adventure "The Proving Ground," the story of the tragic Sydney-to-Hobart yacht race in 1998, in which a surprise storm took out more than half the fleet and killed six mariners. His feel for the wild wonder of the sea goes without saying.

But what about the courtroom thriller part of this book?

We'll leave that to the author and his compelling narrative. The outlines of the story have the Australian patrol boat Southern Supporter in territorial waters north of Antarctica, prime habitat for the shrinking population of Patagonian toothfish. The under-gunned patrol encounters a shadowy 175-foot, Uruguayan-flagged ship, the Viarsa-1. Fishing pirates? Probably.

Before the tale is over, these ships have traversed 4,000 miles of some of the most inhospitable and terrifying waters on the planet, and two years have lapsed. Australia, which is not alone among nations with an imperfect record of managing fisheries, has its laws tested by the tradition of lawlessness that has long ruled the high seas.

All the while, by the heavy ton, by the container load, by the merciless rule of supply and demand, Patagonian toothfish are drawn from the deep, grilled, poached, broiled and sauced in another maritime gold rush.

Then a jury speaks.

It gives away nothing to say that when you next find yourself at a restaurant looking at the seafood offerings, you'll know what you should do. *

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