The Virtues of Sardines

by Adeena Schlussel on behalf of Daniel Lubetzky

This article explains the many values of sardines.  Sardines are a plentiful and sustainable fish, but aside from being healthy for our environment, they are good for our bodies as well.  Unfortunately, except for some brands like BELA (a high quality Portuguese brand of Sardines built by my friend Joshua Scherz), most sardine brands are floundering due to their fishiness.  This is why the Sardinistas are trying to “reinvent the sardine” and earn it a spot on the American mainstream palate.  Hopefully their saintly marketing effort will be successful because it is too bad that they are unpopular today.

Sardines: Sustainable Food to Feed the World

By Cooking Up a Story

Sustainable, abundant, inexpensive, and healthy to eat

Update: April 16, 2010

I recently read the New York Times article, In Maine, Last Sardine Cannery in the U.S. Is Clattering Out about the sardine processing plant that was to close it’s doors, and can it’s last sardine. It’s final day was to be this Sunday, April 18th. Fortunately an undisclosed entity recently made an offer on the facility, great news for the community and the longtime employees of the Stinson Plant in Prospect Harbor, though they have stated they will no longer will be processing sardines.

No reprieve for the canned sardine, but what about fresh sardines? Since sardines are especially healthy to eat, are in large natural abundance, and can be fished sustainably – I wanted to find out more why they weren’t readily available for purchase. I understand the Pacific sardine populations have returned, and in California it is one of the top landed fish for the commercial fishing industry (the other being squid, aka calamari). But I can’t find sardines at my local grocery store, nor at my local farmers market. A nearby seafood market carries them on occasion, but only when they are available from the California fishery.

I spoke with Mike Sutton, Vice President of the Monterey Bay Aquarium., and when I asked about the lack of sources to purchase sardines, he said, “The secret that nobody seems to recognize is that the fishery, which was depleted back in those days has fully recovered, sardines are back, and we’re still fishing the heck out of them, but we don’t eat them anymore. Instead, most of the sardines that we fish today go for livestock feed, or tuna. Increasingly the sardines goes for aquaculture feeds.

“But Americans have stopped eating sardines, and it’s one of the tragedies of seafood today, really, because sardines are among the best possible seafoods for human consumption. Not only are they good for the environment because they are low on the food chain, they’re abundant, but they’re also good for you, good for us! They’re high in Omega 3’s, they’re not contaminated unlike tuna, swordfish, et al. Pregnant women can eat sardines until the cows come home.”

Sutton continued, “we have a new Super Green list on our Seafood Watch program. We’ve always had the Green, Red, and Yellow list; but super Green means good for the environment and good for you. Healthy and environmentally friendly choice. And sardines are at the top of that list.”

He also mentioned the Sardinistas – an underground guerrilla movement to “return the Pacific sardine to the American palette.” A big task for such a small group: himself, a businessman, a fisherman, and a filmmaker. But they are determined. “Like any guerrilla movement it’s an uphill battle. And that’s because most people do not like sardines. [why is that?] I think it’s because they taste fishy. People now, when they think of sardines, they think of a tin of sardines in oil. They don’t smell good, they don’t taste good, people have just gotten used to not liking sardines. We need the mass market to be interested in sardines the way it’s interested in canned tuna. And that’s a long haul.”

In an earlier time, Sutton related, Americans consumed fresh sardines; they were one of the principle foods fed to our World War 1 soldiers. Maybe it’s time to re-enlist the sardine back into the American culinary diet.

From a talk at the recent Cooking For Solutions conference, Dr. Geoff Shester, the Senior Science Manager, Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Sustainable Seafood Initiative describes a sustainably managed fish, high in protein and healthy nutrients, abundant, inexpensive to produce, that could feed a large number of people, affordably. So, what’s the problem?


A New School of Thought About Sardines

They’re Eco-Friendly. But Can They Be Tasty?

Mark Shelley plates Asian-style sardine cakes at a lunch held to promote the small fish.

Mark Shelley plates Asian-style sardine cakes at a lunch held to promote the small fish. (Patrick Tehan For The Washington Post)

Four Sardinistas on a mission: standing, from left, Mike Sutton, David Crabbe and Scott Hennessy; seated, Mark Shelley.

Four Sardinistas on a mission: standing, from left, Mike Sutton, David Crabbe and Scott Hennessy; seated, Mark Shelley. (Patrick Tehan For The Washington Post)

By Jane Black

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 3, 2009

MONTEREY BAY, Calif. — "Revolutionary" isn’t the first word you’d use to describe Mark Shelley. The California filmmaker drives a Toyota Prius, for goodness’ sake. But Shelley is a key member of a culinary counterculture plot to reintroduce sardines to the American palate.

They call themselves the Sardinistas. Along with Shelley, the conspirators are an environmentalist, a veteran commercial fisherman and a semi-retired entrepreneur and marine biologist. For several years, the "cell" has been meeting informally to gorge on sardines and wine. Now, the Sardinistas are forging a plan to produce canned sardines and prepared foods. Their message: These are not your grandfather’s sardines.

"We want to reinvent the sardine and this time do it a little more thoughtfully," Shelley, 58, explained at recent propaganda lunch here on Cannery Row, which once served as headquarters for the California sardine fishery. "We want to value what these fish can give to us from an ecological standpoint and a health standpoint. And we think there are real ways to enjoy them."

Sardines have the blessing of environmentalists, who applaud California’s sustainably managed fishery, and nutritionists, who praise the oily fish’s high level of omega-3 fatty acids. High-end chefs also have recently begun to rediscover the pleasure of fresh sardines, which now appear on chic menus across the country: In Los Angeles, Sona chef David Myers serves them with ginger, garlic and ponzu sauce. At Dino in Cleveland Park, they are pan-roasted with fennel.

The Sardinistas have their work cut out for them, however. For nearly half a century, most Americans have grimaced at the thought of a smellier, seafood version of Spam. With bones, to boot.

Sardines weren’t always such a hard sell. For the first half of the 20th century, they were an American staple. The booming California fishery, headquartered in Monterey Bay, helped feed millions of soldiers in two world wars and employed thousands of European and Asian immigrants. At its peak in the late 1930s, the California sardine fishery processed more than 700,000 tons of sardines annually.

Within the decade, however, the sardine population mysteriously began to decline. And by the 1950s, it had collapsed. Overfishing certainly contributed; sardines were not only processed for food but also ground into animal feed and oil. But there’s evidence that natural boom-and-bust ocean cycles also were a factor. Whatever the case, tuna soon replaced sardines as a cheap go-to meal.

By the 1980s, sardines had begun to reappear in Pacific waters. But they did not make their way to American plates. At the Sardine Factory, a popular Monterey Bay restaurant, Shelley remembers ordering canned sardines that were so delicious he asked the server to show him the tin. "A product of Latvia," he said with a laugh. "Here on Cannery Row, we’re eating sardines from Latvia."

There are many reasons to praise the lowly sardine. The species is on the Blue Ocean Institute and Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch green lists because it is abundant and fished in environmentally friendly ways. Quotas are carefully managed: Fishermen are allowed only 80,000 tons annually, just over 10 percent of the peak haul in the 1930s.

Environmentalists also promote sardines because they object to the way they are now used. The Monterey Bay Aquarium estimates that more than 80 percent of the Pacific sardine catch is used to feed bluefin tunas raised in Mexico and Australia. The problem: It takes at least seven pounds of sardines to produce one pound of tuna, a ratio that they say doesn’t make sense. "Eating tuna and salmon is the functional equivalent of eating grizzly bears and cougars on land," said Sardinista Mike Sutton, who directs the aquarium’s Center for the Future of the Oceans. "We need to eat lower down the food chain to be sustainable."

Eating smaller fish also offers health benefits. Because sardines eat mostly plants, they do not accumulate high levels of mercury or PCBs the way larger, carnivorous fish such as tuna or salmon do. Sardines also live shorter lives: six years vs. about 10 for tuna, meaning less time in the ocean to absorb hazardous toxins. Those factors, say the Sardinistas, plus high levels of protein and omega-3s, make sardines an excellent option for pregnant women, children and eco-conscious college students on a budget.

Intellectually, it’s a strong case, but to succeed, the Sardinistas must overcome a big cultural hurdle. Sardines look like fish. And most Americans would rather not be reminded that the meat they eat was once a living creature. "The reason we eat big predators [such as tuna and salmon] is not because they are big predators; it’s because they can be cut into steaks," said Alton Brown, host of Food Network’s "Good Eats," who attended the Sardinista lunch. "Americans: We’re people of the cut, not the carcass."

Brown is an admitted sardine fanatic. When he travels, he takes one can of the fish for every day on the road and a pair of chopsticks with which to eat them. After 10 years on television, Brown said, he has finally received permission to produce a show on small fish. In it, he plans to take his signature matter-of-fact approach in explaining how and why to eat sardines. "We need to teach our children that, yes, it had a face. And, yes, it had a life. And here, it has fins," he said. "Bluefin tuna is like crack cocaine if it’s good. But we all know what happens if you try to live on crack cocaine."

Chefs, too, are doing their part to acquaint diners with sardines. At Washington’s Jaleo, José Andrés presents the fish grilled with garlic and parsley, and in New York, chef Michael Psilakis plates them alongside a chopped Greek salad at Kefi. At Dino, the sardines are roasted whole and served with fennel, but the chef will remove the heads upon request. "The heads scare people," said owner Dean Gold.

The Sardinistas enjoy the small fish’s strong flavor. But they are working to make it more universally palatable. To that end, Shelley is experimenting with canning his own sardines, which he hopes one day could take the place of canned tuna, and testing recipes for frozen foods with broad appeal. Most promising so far are his pot stickers, a mix of sardines, ginger, garlic and chopped vegetables, and similarly flavored sardine patties, which aim to be an eco-friendly version of salmon and crab cakes. The next step is to write a business plan and raise enough money to get the venture off the ground.

"I’m not a chef. And if I can make this stuff taste good, imagine what someone who does this for a living could do," Shelley said. The goal is to "make people raise their eyebrows and say, ‘I can’t believe these are sardines.’ "

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  1. Jonny Hamachi said:

    Spread the Word!

  2. JG said:

    LOL I love sardines always have. I eat 4-6 cans per week. Funny that people grimace at the thought of eating the bones. I find the bones to be soft and delicious – one of my favorite parts!!! I only wish they had larger spines!

  3. Aislinn said:

    I followed the USDA remonmecdations when my health failed I got sicker fatter. I was desperate to just quit gaining weight when I started Atkins low carb program 6 years ago. When my health improved dramatically, I started researching. All carbs (including veg) convert to sugar in the body. Refined sugar is an anti nutrient that drains the body of vitamins minerals. My body is highly sensitive to refined sugar and I start getting infections shortly after ingesting sugar but that doesn’t happen with other carbs. I don’t believe all carbs are bad.I believe a whole food diet is the best possible diet for a functioning body.Unfortunately, long term refined carbs damage bodies, some to the point, they really can’t eat carbs at all anymore. Weight gain obesity are symptoms of a problem.I bet raw milk is fine but processed milk, I’m not so sure about. Especially with the antibiotics pumped into animals. We barely eat grains now, what they process into flour has little resemblance to real food. Before food became an assembly lined product, most grain naturally sprouted during storage before it was processed converting a grain into a vegetation, which makes it much healthier of a product. Converting oatmeal to instant oatmeal turns a complex carb to a simple one.Evolution takes time. The food products we eat are not natural products. I haven’t researched it enough to state that this is true or an urban myth but people banter about a study done on rats one group fed cereal the other the boxes it came out of The rats fed boxes lived longer.I do not trust the FDA, the USDA, the AHA, the ADA with their current remonmecdations. I think it’s totally irresponsible.You forgot to include hydrogenated oils another toxin allowed in our food supply. Y! Answers does not give me enough characters. paleo low carb are basically the same. Dr.Atkins was a cardiologist, low carb was a health plan easier sold as a diet Normalizing blood pressure, blood sugar, insulin, cholesterol, triglyercerides hormone levels are all bonus features of doing a low carb way of eating.Good Calories, Bad Calories: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom on Diet, Weight Control, Disease book written by Gary Taubes exploring the consequences of modern diet, the amounts of fat carbohydrate that we consume.His main points are: 1. Dietary fat, whether saturated or not, is not a cause of obesity, heart disease or any other chronic disease. 2. The problem is carbs in diet, their effect on insulin secretion the hormonal regulation of homeostasis the entire harmonic ensemble of the human body. The more easily digestible refined the carbohydrates, the greater the effect on our health 3. Sugars sucrose, high-fructose corn syrup specifically are particularly harmful, the combination of fructose glucose simultaneously elevates insulin levels while overloading the liver with carbs. 4. Through their direct effects on insulin and blood sugar, refined carbohydrates, starches, sugars are the dietary cause of coronary heart disease diabetes. They are likely dietary causes of cancer, Alzheimer’s other diseases. 5. Obesity is a disorder of excess fat accumulation, not overeating not sedentary behaviour. 6. Consuming excess calories does not cause us to grow fatter, any more than it causes a child to grow taller. Using more energy than we consume does not lead to long-term weight loss, it leads to hunger. 7. Fattening obesity are caused by an imbalance in the hormonal regulation of adipose tissue fat metabolism. Fat synthesis storage exceed the mobilization of fat from adipose tissue its subsequent oxidation. We become leaner when the hormonal regulation of the fat tissue is reversed. 8. Insulin is the primary regulator of fat storage. When insulin levels fall, we release fat from fat tissue. 9. By stimulating insulin secretion, carbs make us fat.10. By driving fat accumulation, carbs also increase hunger decrease the amount of energy we expend in metabolism physical activity.

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