Sometime referred to as the Great Pacific Saradine, Pilchard, California Sardine.
Did I mention that these small fish if handled properly are one of the glories of the seven seas? Well, they are. And Sardiops sagax is no exception. I recently showed up at a Bar-b-que at a fisherman's house in HMB with a half bucket of fresh sardines (“Hey, who brought all this bait?” Someone yelled). Everyone there was intent on eating fresh, tuna, salmon and halibut. But I threw a few sardines on the grill (after brushing them with my garlic infused olive oil) and then sat back and watched these fishermen scarf the entire half bucket as effectively as any pod of hungry dolphins might have done.
Just saying. There are a lot or reasons why everyone should at least try a local sardine. Whether it's blast frozen (IQF) or fresh out of the Pacific Ocean. Obvously the fresh ones are harder to get, but the IQF are being served in every restaurant in SF... and are still considered an excellent seafood option by most chefs.
Sardines will always arrive whole. So you will need to scale, gut and clean them.
Marilyn Monroe in the Noir classic: Clash By Night. If Marilyn can clean a sardine, so can you!
Scientific Name: Sardinops sagax
Habitat: Sardines live in the water column in nearshore and offshore areas along the coast. They’re also sometimes found in estuaries. Sardines prefer warmer water.
Diet: They feed on plankton (tiny floating plants and animals).
Size: Up to more than 12 inches long.
Range: From southeastern Alaska to the Gulf of California, Mexico. Pacific sardines move seasonally along the coast.
2010 - present
2010 - present
High in Omega 3's, low in all the other stuff. Sardines are about the healthiest fish you can find.
Gear and fishery info:
Sardines are fished seasonally. Each season has it's quota. But with new technologies the fleet is so adept at catching sardines that the quota is often reached very quickly. This year for instance, the 3 month summer season ended in something like ten days. So as far as getting a fresh sardine you had a ten day window in the summer. Because the schools are more spread out and harder to find in the winter, fewer fishermen (if any) are targetting them and so despite a longer lasting season they are still really hard to find fresh. In fact, getting a fresh sardine is always something of a mircale. In addition to the above challenges the shelf life of a sardine is notoriously short. I don't like to eat sardines that are more than two days out of the water, and prefer them the day of capture. But again, finding anything that was caught the day it was landed is a major challenge to any fishermonger. Other than myself throwing a casting net on one of the ten days before the season closes in June and one lone Greek fishernan out of HMB who fishes them year round and pulls his lampara net by hand (!) it's hard to find anyone who can get me sardines the day they were caught, especially in the fall and winter. The squid boats are the main sardine hunters these days. And since my mongering buddies Kenny Belov, (2 x Sea), Beck Barger (Small Boat Seafood) and myself are friendly with one of the best squid boats in the fleet, we will have access to some amazing sardines at some point this summer.
Fish Nerdism 101:
Sing in me oh muse... and through me tell the tale of that small fish that once formed the greatest fishery on the planet. 2 billion pounds caught annually in California waters. A gigantic ocean based industry which supported the greatest cannery on earth, employed thousands, brought prosperity to Central California, and then... suddenly... with little warning... crashed and burned with devastating finality.
What happened? For the last 65 years fishermen have tended to explain the crash of sardine stocks as part of a natural cycle of abundance and decline. Biologists and fisheries managers have tended to emphasize greed and overfishing.
Now pretty much everyone agrees that a combination of factors spelled the end of the golden age of the Pacific sardine. Because sardines are highly deciduous (their scales fall off easily), core samples of ocean sediments contain enough sardine scales for biologists to track their abundance over time. What they've learned from examining ocean sediments is that sardine populations are, as the fishermen suspected, subject to drastic fluctuations. It also appears that the early 40s would have marked a period of decline whether or not anyone was fishing. Nevertheless, it's hard to imagine that catching 2 billion pounds of sardines per year did not, in the end, contribute substantially to the crash.
The good news is that our sardine stocks are now considered healthy and well managed. Unfortunately however, the local round haul fleet is so effective at catching them that a truly fresh sardine can be a hard thing to come by. Allow me to explain.
In April 2013 I did a Tedx Talk in Monterey on the subject of small fishes and why we should all be eating them. As seafood consumers, and lovers of the ocean, we can ill afford to allow the global tendency towards targetting apex-predator fish to go on unabated. At some point we are going to have embrace the little guys or risk trophic cascade or just the annhilation of big predatory species like bluefin tuna, swordfish, mako shark & etc. Small, schooling fishes like sardines, menhaden, anchovy, and herring grow a lot faster and reach sexual maturity at a younger age than many larger predatory fish species—and so can rebound a lot faster from the industrial fishing practices that humans seem intent on continuing. Additionally, with the constant news of massive environmental damage, (Gulf oil spill, Fukushima, etc) it makes a lot more sense for us to be eating fish species that do not live long enough, or feed high enough on the food chain to bioaccumulate significant amounts of toxins. So put down that long-lined swordfish, mahi-mahi or opah steak and try a sardine or a herring or a few anchovies every now and then!
2015 Sardine Update
There are several different factors contributing to the decline. The same factors that were also argued about, mulled over and analyzed ad infinitum back in the 1940s post-Steinbeck Cannery Row days--the last time the fishery crashed. Back then the same question arose, why did these amazingly abundant creatures suddenly disappear? By and large fisheries managers blamed the fishermen and the fishermen blamed mother nature. As it turns out they were both right. The fishermen took way too many sardines. The catch average in the mid thirties out of Monterey was a jaw dropping 1.4 billion pounds. Yearly. That's right yearly. Sorry boys but that's just too many dead fish. However, if you are going to fish anything that hard, it should be squid or sardines or anchovies because they live a short life and reproduce like flies. In fact ecologically speaking flies and sardines are what we call "r selected species." (the r in this case is a variable in a complicated algebraic equation I will not herein deign to explain) In other words, short-lived species that reproduce quickly and in vast numbers with minimal adult supervision.
Ahem… where was I? Ok… So, after the total crash in sardine stocks in the late 40s early 50s… sardine populations remained low until the 90s when they suddenly showed signs of recovery. Around this time fisheries biologists perfected the technique of gathering sediment core samples from the ocean floor… what the hell does that have to do with the price of sardines in China? Well, guess what? Sardines being what we call a highly deciduous fish (like deciduous trees that drop their leaves) shed their scales very easily. These scales trickle down to the ocean floor and collect stratigraphically in ocean sediments. Core samples, or more specifically the amount of sardine scales in ocean sediment core samples allow biologists to track their population dynamics over time… and here's what the core samples tell us:
1. sardine populations go through drastic periods of abundance and decline.
2. these periods seem to occur at 30-60 year intervals
3. sardines scales do not occur before 50,000 years ago (to be honest I can't remember how many years ago it was, but it's in the thousands, rather than millions… so in other words: sardines have not been on the west coast of North America for a very long time--geologically speaking).
What are we to deduce from this? Well… I think its safe to say that sardine population are prone to huge fluctuations regardless of fishing pressure. We were due to have a decline in the early 2000s and this one started in 2007. As incredible as it may seem, sardines have not been on the west coast very long. So they have not actually evolved to the point where they are resistant to things like changes in upwelling, water temperature, current changes etc. By contrast, anchovies which have been here for many millions of years have evolved here, and so are not prone to the drastic fluctuations of sardines.
Add to this that NOAA grossly over estimated the sardine population the last few years and allowed the purse seine fleet to take an absurdly large quota. And you will understand the urgency in closing it down. I should point out that they did not close down the by catch fisheries (squid and anchovy). If it was really that dire they would have closed squid--lots of sardines are caught in squid seines.
So where does that leave us? Here:
1. We should be concerned about sardines, and the targeted seine fishery should be closed.
2. Sardines have a history of drastic population upheavals. They've come back from worse than this.
3. Global warming is a variable no one knows what to do with, and the case could be made that sardines actually prefer warmer water.
4. It is entirely possible that the sardines (which can travel at the remarkable speed of 50-75 miles per day) upped and went somewhere else, especially considering there was no upwelling (the surge of cold water caused by NW winds, that brings nutrients and food up from the deep offshore waters) in California waters till 2 weeks ago.