updated 9/21/2004 10:15:29 AM ET 2004-09-21T14:15:29

Federal authorities along the West Coast have seized in recent weeks more than 600,000 pounds of suspected illegal Chilean sea bass, a $10 million haul that environmentalists say reflects a thriving black market trade in the delicate, tasty fish.

Illegally caught and often routed through more friendly foreign markets to disguise its origin or capture, the high-priced delicacy is a popular target for pirates in the South Pacific and Antarctic oceans. As a result, stocks are dwindling.

In a report released Tuesday, the National Environmental Trust blames regulation loopholes, sophisticated smuggling techniques and overburdened border enforcement for the illegal trade.

“There is no way for restaurants, grocery stores or consumers to know that their Chilean sea bass is legal, so we encourage Americans to continue to take a pass on it,” said Andrea Kavanagh, director of the trust’s sea bass report team.

Served up in restaurants as Chilean sea bass, the slow-growing, cold water fish is more properly known as Patagonian or Antarctic toothfish.

Guide lists seafood by abundance and scarcityIn reviewing seven months of detailed shipping industry data on U.S. imports of the toothfish, the environmental group found shipments of the frozen fillets often were mixed with other seafood, which makes it difficult to identify.

The National Environmental Trust said signatories to Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources must strengthen regulations limit imports to make poaching more difficult.

Andy Cohen, who heads the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration northeast enforcement office, said Monday that increased enforcement has taken a bite out of the illegal toothfish trade, but it remains a major problem.

There’s a good chance, he said, that restaurant customers ordering Chilean sea bass are eating illegal toothfish.

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