Photograph by Sam Abell, NG Creative
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Sardines haven't caught on with many in the U.S., but around the world, they are both a staple and a delicacy.
Photograph by Sam Abell, NG Creative

Sardines, Both Beloved and Reviled, May Be Vanishing

About once a month, for family reasons, I go to Maine. The family is deep in central Maine, in a tiny town with no market, bar or restaurant—so to prep for the trip up-country, I try to fly in and out of Portland, which has a killer distillery, a vast amount of craft beer, and great restaurants.

A few weeks ago, I stopped for dinner at Boone’s Fish House and Oyster Room, a 100-year-old waterfront property that was left derelict in the 2000s and revived two years ago. Listed among the appetizers, there was a dish that instantly obsessed me:

Quick snack sardines: tinned Portugese sardines smashed, hot sauce, pickled celery, mayo, grilled bread.

But delicious though it sounded, the “quick snack” wasn’t quite right for the dinner my group was composing that night. I promised myself I would order it in a few weeks, when next I came to town.

Last week, I went back. The sardines, though, were gone.

“We couldn’t sell them,” Harding Lee Smith, the chef at Boone’s and several other Portland restaurants, told me by phone. “We’ve had it on the menu since day one, and finally gave up last week.”

“I love them,” he added. “But smaller fish, oilier fish, fish that have bones and take a bit of effort—they’re difficult for people. They can be a hard sell.”

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The menu at a Maine oyster house, just before it took sardines off the menu. Photograph by Maryn McKenna

Smith loves sardines in part because they take him back to his childhood, sailing the Gulf of Maine with his father; the chef recalls with a laugh that his dad’s idea of lunch, when they were under way and hungry, was “a can of sardines, some hot sauce and a fork.”

I like them not just because they’re strong-flavored and rich, but because they remind me of places I’ve traveled—especially Barcelona, where the Boqueria market houses fishmongers selling sardine-like boquerones, and Brittany, where sardines are taken so seriously they are canned with vintage dates. (In a post earlier this year, food writer David Lebovitz compared the pleasures of Breton and Bordeaux sardines.) And though you might think of them as a European thing, canned fish have a passionate following in Asia, where temperature and weather make preserved fish a better bet than fresh; in 2010, Thai author Leela Punyaratabandhu wrote a much-replied-to paean to canned sardines on her food blog, She Simmers.

But, to be clear, these are minority opinions. Sardines aren’t a favorite U.S. food: Though John Steinbeck’s Cannery RowJohn Steinbeck’s Cannery Row enshrined sardine fishing in American history, the last U.S. sardine cannery closed in 2010. It was in Prospect Harbor, Maine, several hours’ drive from Smith’s restaurant. Most of us probably haven’t even noticed that the major U.S. sardine fishery, on the Pacific Coast, was deemed in such perilous condition by ocean authorities that it was not allowed to open this year. Canada has done the same. (Here’s a piece from our sister blog, National Geographic Voices, reflecting on the closure.)

Sardine fishing on the West Coast is not being allowed this year because the “biomass”—the amount of sardines present in the ocean—has fallen below the level at which the Pacific Fishery Management Council thinks it is sustainably safe to fish. And nobody really understands the reasons.

“It’s a tough question why,” Santi Roberts, science manager at the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, said by phone. “This is a resource where we have seen boom and bust cycles over decades, with Monterey being built on sardines back in the 1930s, and then a big collapse after that. It has been very difficult for scientists to figure out which is the main driving factor. Is it environmental fluctuation? Is it overfishing that is the main cause of these collapses? I think it is fair to say we have a resource that grows very quickly when the conditions are right, and then that decreases very quickly when the environmental conditions are not very good for it.”

But whether the cycle will swing up again—bringing sardines back in abundance—no one can say. And in its trough, bad things are happening. The bust has been so profound that sea lion pups, which rely on sardines and other small fish, have been climbing up from beaches into towns in search of food. And in addition to being news-making, it is controversial: A recent investigation by the Food and Environment Reporting Network (whom, disclosure, I sometimes work with) contends that authorities waited too long to put the sardine ban in place because of economic pressure from the aquaculture industry, which feeds meal made from small fish to pens of large fish.

The collapse of the fishery reflects the difficulty of doing longterm planning for ocean resources. But the lack of news about it in most of the country highlights the problems that ocean planners and chefs both face in persuading U.S. consumers to eat smaller fish. That would not only introduce diners to the richness of the oceans’ food web, but it could shift the value of small fish too: Right now, their main use in the market is to feed the very popular farmed fish species such as salmon instead.

As Clare Leschin-Hoar argued recently at TakePart, Americans should be eating “ugly fish,” the unfamiliar, weirdly named, flavor-packed species that we ignore—or sell to Europe and Asia—because we don’t value what we’ve got. (A few years ago, food writer Corby Kummer contended in The Atlantic that we ought to embrace sardines as an alternative to canned tuna, for lower mercury levels, higher amounts of heart-healthy omega-3 fats, and better flavor.)

At Boone’s, Chef Smith hasn’t given up hope of leading his customers to eat more interesting fish.

“We are a culinary partner with the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, and we’ve committed to keeping at least five varieties of local fish on the menu at all time, and have them be sustainable fish,” he said. “We’re trying to use fish like cusk, which is lesser-known, bonier, harder to clean but has great flavor. We keep a book behind the counter that has details of the varieties we think are OK to use, and we coach our front-of-house staff so they can be excited about the fish we serve and explain them to the customers.”

“We hope if we keep doing it and keep doing it, and stay true to our philosophy, people will get the message,” he added. “And then maybe we’ll be able to bring sardines back. Because they’re delicious.”