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).

Santiago is the only place from which Chilean sea bass is flown out of the country, and the fish arrives at local purveyors, who repackage it, usually in 75- to 80-pound, wax-lined cardboard boxes using an artificial coolant. The boxes are then put in 3,000-pound aluminum containers for the flight, and the packagers then begin putting out calls to their clients all over the world.

"The packing house calls me and says, 'We have 5,000 pounds of sea bass at this price per pound,' and I say, 'OK, I'll take it,'" Harbison said.

The packing house writes up an invoice and an air bill so the fish can clear customs, copies of which are sent both to Harbison and his custom broker at LAX. (Some species of fish are subject to duties upon arrival in the U.S.; Chilean sea bass isn't.) The customs broker charges a flat rate of about 2 cents a pound to clear the fish, paid for by the importer.

Prepared for takeoff

Before the fish takes off for LAX, it will probably spend several hours in a cooler, then it is loaded onto a plane. Three airlines fly direct from Santiago to Los Angeles: United Airlines, American Airlines and the Chilean national airlines, LAN Chile. The fish is typically transported on passenger flights; LAN Chile flies two cargo-only flights a week as well. In addition, there are flights from Santiago to L.A. by way of Miami carrying sea bass.

The direct flight takes about 14 hours, and the 767s that are used have to stop and refuel in places like Lima, Peru, or Mexico City. Upon arrival at LAX, the cargo is put in a cooler, where it sits until Harbison's trucks pick it up and put it in the company's warehouse.

Harbison then sells the Chilean sea bass to a wholesaler like Santa Monica Seafood, which has agreed to pay a certain price. The wholesaler either picks up the fish or has Harbison deliver it. The fish is then checked for quality, and will be sent back if deemed unacceptable.

"We take it out of the boxes, and if it's discolored, or there's an odor, we reject it and call the broker," said Santa Monica Seafood's Michael A. Cigliano, a member of the family that owns the business. "Then it will go to a secondary market at a discount."

Of course, that can put the wholesaler in something of a bind.

"In the fresh fish business, you have today to sell it," Harbison said. "If you don't sell it, you've lost, because tomorrow is another day to sell fresh fish. I can take back the sea bass and freeze it. But that knocks a dollar off my price per pound."

Even before it gets to Santa Monica Seafood, a host of complications can leave wholesalers and importers alike pulling out their hair.

Limited space

Because there are only so many flights from Santiago to L.A., there is a limited amount of available cargo space for the fish, which is competing with other goods being shipped here.

During the just-ended Valentine's Day season, for example, fresh South America flowers were in great demand, often pushing already-ordered and paid-for fish off of planes, because the airlines can make more money from flowers.

"Flowers don't weigh anything, they just occupy space," Harbison points out. "And flower importers pay more than fish importers. Airlines love it. There is less payload, so they use less gas. The airlines make a killing on flowers."

Although it doesn't affect Chilean sea bass, fish like swordfish flown from the Northeast might get bumped off a flight in favor of mail during Christmas and New Year's, when the postal system is working overtime.

"Your fish is on a flight from Boston to L.A., and the U.S. postal system can order the plane to stop in Chicago, take off the fish, and put on mail," said Santa Monica Seafood's Cigliano. "So I'll get a call saying, 'Your fish is in Chicago.' Well, now what do we do?"

Then there is the loading process at LAX. LAN Chile is closed for eight hours at night, so fish that arrives with other cargo will stay in a cooler for several hours. By the time Harbison is ready to pick it up, there may be dozens of other trucks waiting in line, leading to long delays.

Once the fish is in Harbison's hands, he gets it to his wholesalers, who have been talking with their clients. Crustacean's An uses three or four wholesalers, of which Santa Monica Seafood is one. The wholesalers send lists late at night of what fish is available, and An orders what she needs for the next day. It arrives at her restaurant around 10 in the morning, just in time for lunch.

How much sea bass does L.A. go through?

Santa Monica Seafood alone sold 100,000 pounds of fresh and 250,000 pounds of frozen Chilean sea bass last year, Ciglione said. Harbison estimates that Los Angeles goes through 40,000 pounds of it every week.

That demand and constricting supply have made the price subject to volatile swings. Harbison pays about $5 a pound, then sells it to wholesalers like Santa Monica Seafood for around $6. The wholesaler then sells it to Crustacean for around $11 a pound.

And Crustacean? It serves eight ounces of steamed Chilean sea bass for $24.50. And does so quite successfully.

"At every table, at least one meal is sea bass," An says with a smile. "Our customers like it because it is so healthy."

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