Ok, so it’s no secret that I love sardines. They’re a great example of the kind of fish that we should be eating more of. They reproduce in large numbers, breed at a young age, and are exceptionally fecund. They’re low on the trophic scale and thus are an efficient source of protein, so it’s not tough for me to bang the drum about them when I talk about how we can eat fish more sustainably.
Sardines are low in mercury, PCBs, and other contaminents due to their short lifespans and to where they live in the water column. Also, like many cold-water oily fish, sardines are high in Omega-3s. Awesome.
But there’s a problem.
The vast majority of the sardines we get in this country are sealed away in funky little pull-tab tins that make me think of oil drum fires, harmonicas, and shady alleys in East St. Louis. This unfortunate image problem makes it difficult to put the humble sardine back on the menu in American restaurants. We’ve developed a taste for “fresh” fish (don’t get me started on how ridiculous the concept of “fresh” is).
Our sardines are not fresh. They languish in decade-old cans in the back of the pantry, waiting for some catastrophic event when the infrastructure of the country collapses and we are forced to live on tinned food in underground bomb shelters with half of the neighborhood.
The fact is, though, that the sardine is a diamond in the rough. Sashimi-grade sardines are healthy, delicious morsels that give us an excellent option for positive change at the sushi bar as well as the seafood counter. Any decent sushi bar should offer iwashi when sardines are in season, and I highly recommend giving them a try.
That being said, there’s still one problem… and yes, it’s sustainability related.
The vast majority of the sardines that come into this country are from enormous foreign fisheries that have little or no transparency and management. Morocco, Thailand, Portugal, Scotland, Spain, Poland, and countless other countries have sardine fisheries. But which ones are sustainable?
The answer: I don’t know. I’m not sure that anyone has a good answer.
The folks at FishWise and Seafood Watch have been wrestling with this issue for a while. There really isn’t much information available on most sardine stocks. It’s probably due to an ongoing issue that permeates much of our relationship to the ocean — we like big fish. And pretty fish. And brightly-colored fish. And fish with sharp teeth.
But little fish with no “personalities”, no stories, no flashy colors — people don’t really seem to care about them too much. There’s an historic trend of these “forage fish” (small fish like sardines and smelt that form the lower levels of the food web and support many larger fish) being ignored by fishery management schemes. Even after the train wreck at Cannery Row, it’s still common to think that these tiny carbon-copy fish are infinite in number: they are all too often of negligible importance to the scientists and policy-makers that spend their time dealing with sharks and salmon.
But little but little, this is starting to change.
A new announcement by the Marine Stewardship Council showcases a great example of this paradigm shift. The French purse-seine sardine fishery in the Bay of Biscay is now officially in full MSC assessment. Those of you familiar with the MSC are likely aware that any fishery that makes it into full assessment has a very high chance of gaining certification.
I have issues with the MSC, mainly based around stringency of benchmarks and their process for demanding and monitoring fishery improvements, but even I have to admit that the MSC brings one very important piece of the sustainability process to the table: traceability. MSC-certified products are tracked in such a way that it is possible to determine nearly everything about the fish in question — stock status, catch method, even load/unload data and break-of-bulk points are recorded. This is an incredbibly important step forward for most fisheries, but for sardiners, it’s an unheard-of leap.
Sardines have a lot going for them. They’re the kind of animals that have a good chance at supporting our seafood demand due to inherent physiology and life history. But if we don’t give them the attention they deserve and fish for them in a sustainable and traceable manner, well, those old tins in your pantry might start to look a lot more appetizing.