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How a Savvy Marketer Created the Chilean Sea Bass
There’s an old saying that fishing lures are designed to catch fishermen, not fish.
In a sense, some fish are also designed to catch consumers.
That’s exactly what fish wholesaler Lee Lantz had in mind in 1977 when he visited a fishing port in Chile.
“That is one amazing-looking fish,” he said, pointing to a gray specimen with a gnarly under bite. “What the hell is it?”
Besides “kind of gross,” locals didn’t know what to call it either – they caught it accidentally. They were unaware biologists identified the species 80 years earlier as Patagonian toothfish.
To sell it in the States, Lantz needed a more poetic name than toothfish. It needed to sound familiar enough that people wouldn’t be scared of it, but also exotic enough to command premium prices.
He settled on “Chilean sea bass.”
Never mind that toothfish are cod, not bass. It would turn out to be a wildly successful re-branding.
Almost too successful, actually. Toothfish went from being useless bycatch to overfished in 40 years. It went from anonymous bottom feeder to high-brow entree, sold for $46 a plate at the seafood restaurant a block from our office in Philadelphia.
This is a common thread with seafood. The unfortunately named slimehead fish is now called “orange roughy.” Sea urchin is appearing as “uni,” its Japanese name, on trendy menus.