At Crustacean, the Vietnamese seafood restaurant in Beverly Hills, owner and executive chef Helene An carefully presses a latex-gloved finger on a large cut of Chilean sea bass.

"It should be sticky to the hand," she says. "And pinkish, not plain white. That's how you can tell it's fresh."

Steamed and served in a ginger sauce with scallions, the fish is one of An's more popular items; the restaurant goes through about 70 pounds in a single day.

Even amid concerns that it is being over-harvested, Chilean sea bass remains in great demand, as is seafood in general at the restaurants, markets and kitchens of Los Angeles.

For restaurateurs like An, freshness is of utmost concern. But Chilean sea bass isn't exactly around the corner. And it won't stay fresh for very long.

That sets the stage for a 7,000-mile, five-stage trip that under optimum conditions will take between five and six days, the last 5,500 miles taking up about half of that. It's an excursion made possible by the increasing role of more efficient and timely air cargo services.

Highly perishable

"The timer is on," said Doug Harbison of Harbison Seafoods, a leading L.A. fish importer. "Aged beef is something you want, but aged fish is something you throw away. There's a lot of pressure in this business."

The journey to Crustacean starts in the deep waters off Chile and Argentina in the region called Patagonia, the southernmost tip of South America. The Chilean sea bass is actually called the Patagonian toothfish, but was renamed 15 or so years ago in North America as a marketing device.

It worked, and now the relatively odorless white fish is so popular that countries in the Southern Hemisphere are rigorously enforcing regulations on the species, trying to keep unlicensed pirate fishing boats from catching the fish as well. The fish is found not only off Chile and Argentina, but in the waters around Peru, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

Licensed boats go out in 30-hour shifts, sending hooks and lines down 3,000 feet. The caught fish are gutted and have their heads removed, then put in the boat's hold on ice. Upon return to the docks, the fish are usually re-packed on ice in 100-pound Styrofoam boxes, then trucked to the Chilean capital of Santiago, 1,500 miles away. That journey takes perhaps 18 hours (a small percentage is flown there).

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