I only eat anchovies with Caesar salad, and am rather fond of the tiny fish that add a bit of strong flavor to the romaine lettuce. I’m unusual for wanting to get even that close to the tiny, oily fish – sardines, anchovy, menhaden – that used to be a staple of regular American food. That’s why Julia Whitty’s recent article in Mother Jones in which she encourages consumers to pause before they “ take a bite of that sardine sandwich” was so surprising. You won’t find sardines anywhere on the list of the top 10 consumed seafoods - or do you? Here’s why eating more sardines directly would actually be good for the ocean:
1) The United States Pacific sardine fishery is not overfished. This may be surprising to people who are familiar with the famous collapse of the Monterey (central California) sardine fishery, which was described by John Steinbeck in his book Cannery Row. Puzzlement over this collapse launched one of the most important long-term oceanographic investigations of all time, the California Cooperative Oceanic Fisheries Investigation, which continues to provide critical scientific information to this day. Over 50 years of investigation has shown that this crash actually WASN’T caused by overfishing – at least not directly.
Sardine and anchovy populations are actually tied directly to large-scale climatic conditions – if they’re favorable, there’s lots of fish. If they’re unfavorable, the fish crash. Overfishing may have exacerbate the crash and slowed recovery, but it probably didn’t cause it directly. Some researchers are predicting a similar sardine crash this year due to unfavorable climatic conditions similar to those seen before the late 1940s crash, and are encouraging managers to decrease sardine quotes in order to speed post-crash recovery. (Though this is controversial – see this response).
Historically, sardine & anchovy fisheries in other parts of the world, such as the South American anchoveta fishery (the biggest fishery in the world) are less well regulated. Overfishing in these ecosystems leads to no room for error – if there is the slightest change in the climate that causes the fish to reproduce less fast, the fishery crashes. Buy U.S. Pacific sardines.
2) Americans should eat more sardines directly, and fewer sardines indirectly. Only about a quarter of the enormous U.S. sardine haul is eaten directly - the rest are sold as bait or as fishmeal. All of the three most popular U.S. seafoods – shrimp, salmon, and canned tuna – are farmed with fishmeal or caught with bait. This is why Jennifer Jacquet developed her “Eat Like A Pig” campaign. Grist covered this issue in response to Whitty’s article as well:
Geoff Shester, the California program director at Oceana, talked to Grist contributor Clare Leschin-Hoar for the article, “Small fish, big ocean: Saving Pacific forage fish.” We followed up with him to ask his take on sardine-eating. In the case of Pacific sardines, he said that “the lion’s share go to bluefin tuna farms (ranches) in Australia, then to commercial longline bait in international tuna fisheries.” Overall, he says, “consumers are demanding the wrong things. Instead of demanding farmed salmon, which uses at least three pounds of forage fish to get one pound of salmon, people should be demanding the forage fish themselves.”
Also, sardines are healthy! They appear on the New York Times list of the 11 Best Foods You Aren’t Eating. Also, food writer Michael Pollan’s Rule 32 (Don’t overlook the oily little fishes”) elaborates further:
Wild fish are among the healthiest things you can eat, yet many wild fish stocks are on the verge of collapse because of overfishing. Avoid big fish at the top of the marine food chain–tuna, swordfish, shark–because they’re endangered, and because they often contain high levels of mercury. Fortunately, a few of the most nutritious wild fish species, including mackerel, sardines, and anchovies, are well managed, and in some cases are even abundant. Those oily little fish are particularly good choices. According to a Dutch proverb: “A land with lots of herring can get along with few doctors.”
3) Since sardine and other small forage fish like anchovies and menhadan congregate in single-species schools in the water column (see the awesome photo by Jon Bertsch at the top of this post!), there’s relatively little bycatch. Fishers are able to catch these fish, and only these fish, without accidentally killing a lot of other marine life. This is emphatically not the case with the longline tuna fisheries for which forage fish become bait. Fish farming operations have other significant environmental impacts, such as the infection of wild salmon stocks with farmed salmon parasites and damage to the ocean bottom communities. Eating sardines directly is far better for the ocean environment than filtering them through large predators caught accidentally with more large predators.
After the beating I took on bluefin tuna, I feel that I need to say that I am a marine biologist but not a fisheries scientist. A blog post can’t be a critical, comprehensive review of fisheries populations models, since a) nobody would read that and b) I actually do have a day job. But I love eating fish and reading scientific literature, so I keep writing on these issues in the attempt to make complex issues more accessible to the general public. Because when super-lefty-enviro magazines Grist and Mother Jones disagree, what the heck is a consumer to do?
Anyway, a sardine sandwich sounds super gross. Before you eat some sustainable tasty Pacific sardines, check out Barton Seaver’s website for far more tasty ways to eat them.