Sep 26 2018

Sardines

The little things

Consider the sardine. The small fish sits at the base of the ocean’s food web. Cold currents welling up in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans nurture schools of billions of the creatures, their populations waxing and waning in decades-long global cycles. Entire industries and ecosystems have been built upon the little swimmers.

Not that they get much credit. Sardines are ground up into animal meal, rendered into oil or bait, and stuffed unceremoniously into cans for mass consumption.

But their star is on the rise. Trendy, delicious, and aesthetically irresistible, sardines have begun to garner public adoration once again. In Portugal, the city-wide celebration of Santo António, Lisbon’s patron saint, wouldn’t be complete without a fresh sardine, grilled on a street corner with a splash of lemon. In fact, Portugal has elevated the sardine to the pinnacle of its culinary culture, prizing them equally at home or on a white tablecloth. And finally, the rest of the world is catching on.

But just as they’re ready to swim back into our lives again, the fish may be leaving for cooler waters. Climate change is threatening the species’ ancestral homes. Let’s dive in.

By the digits

300 AD: Date to which scientists have ocean sediment cores tracking population fluctuations of Pacific sardines

30 years: Age at which canned sardines are still excellent to eat

7 km (4.3 miles): Length of shoals of fish in the South African sardine run, which rivals in biomass East Africa’s great wildebeest migration

0.323 kg (0.71 lb): Weight of the heaviest sardine on record

15 years: Oldest recorded age of a live sardine

Sardine populations have been rising and falling for thousands of years. An average cycle is approximately 55-60 years. But combination of overfishing in some regions and natural cycles means catches have been falling since the 1990s.

 

Wait, what’s a sardine again?

Sardines are not just one, but at least 21 species of cold-water loving fish. Silds, sprats, herring and pilchards are all classified as sardines, depending on whether one is fishing in the Mediterranean, North Sea, Pacific or elsewhere.

Sardines live fast, but they don’t die young. The oldest can live for 15 years, reaching 90% of their adult length (about 27 cm) within a year. They swim with their mouths open, gorging on tiny phytoplankton and zooplankton in the water column. Within a few years, females can spawn 400,000 to 1 million eggs annually (to match their fecundity, hens would need to lay almost 5,000 eggs.)

That’s good news, because sardines are the all-you-can-eat buffet of the sea. They are the key forage species for predators including fish, squid, marine mammals, and seabirds. Not to mention humans: Fishery experts estimate every major sardine fishery in the world is already fully exploited.

Reuters/Lucy Nicholson

 

The fish that filled a thousand factories

The ancient Greeks and Romans loved sardines, and the first modern sardine factory opened in Setúbal, Portugal in 1880. The country is the fish’s greatest champion on the continent, and celebrates St. Anthony’s Day (June 13th) by grilling fresh sardines on every street corner.

Sardines are typically washed, cleaned, and steamed before being packed in oil or water. Styles vary. Olive oil is preferred in Portugal, Spain, and Morocco. Soybean oil is common in the US, herring oil in Norway, while some prefer water, mustard or tomato sauce. Sardine scales are suctioned off to make cosmetics, lacquers, and artificial pearls.

Today the industry is almost gone from the US. The value of sardines consumed once routinely exceeded that of Maine lobsters in the 1960s. But by 2005, per capita sardine consumption had fallen to 0.1 pounds per year in the US (compared to 16 pounds for all seafood and 220 pounds of meat), and has yet to recover. California’s famed canneries, immortalized in John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, declined from about 51 in 1948 to just one in 1968—today there are zero. Maine’s last cannery closed in 2010.

Reuters/Nacho Doce

How do I eat them?

Sardines were once considered finer than lobster. Oscar Wilde’s son even opened a sardine tasting club in 1930s London. The finest specimens ended up in European pantries next to foie gras and caviar.

Demand for protein during WWII transformed them into lunchbox food for workers and soldiers in the US, takng the shine off the species’ reputation. Human consumption has been declining ever since.

But all is not lost. A cadre of “sardinistas” around the world are resurrecting the culinary glory days of the sardine. (They happen to be great for you: full of protein, essential fats, and amino acids, vitamins, and minerals.)

The classic preparation is to grill up fresh sardines rubbed with olive oil, garlic, and parsley and splash on a bit of red wine vinegar and lemon juice. There’s also sardelosalata, a version of a classic caviar, and no shortage of inventive things to do with the canned ones.

Staying out of hot water

Sardines may not be sticking around. Stocks have recently plummeted by almost 80% off the coast of Portugal and Spain, grounding their fleets for months (a 15-year ban is being contemplated). The US just shut down the west coast sardine fishery for the fourth straight year after a 97% collapse in sardine populations since 2006.

The reason? Natural cycles in the oceans, for the most part. But now global warming is set to take over. As soon as ocean temperatures rise above sardines’ preferred 10 to 15°C, they leave, says Francisco Chavez, a biological oceanographer at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.

For now, natural cycles are the primary factory in sardines’ boom and bust cycles. “It’s not going to be that way in the future,” Chavez says. “In maybe 20 years, climate change will be the dominant player.” When that happens, sardines will head to the poles, leaving their traditional fishing grounds, and the countries that rely on them, high and dry.

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Original post: https://qz.com/emails/quartz-obsession/1400071/

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