This week our catch is Pacific Sardines, a rare and unusual catch in our waters. Historically sardines were an important part of California's economy, leading to the historic Cannery Row in Monterey Bay that would eventually produce 1.4 million cases of canned sardines during World War I. Sardines were historically the largest fishery on the West Coast. However this high demand, coupled with increasingly effective fishing and canning techniques would lead to a fishery collapse in the 1940's. Theories for the fishery collapse include unfavorable environmental conditions, poor fishery management, or a combination of the two.
Since then the sardine stock (which includes all sardines caught from Baja California to British Columbia) has been fluctuating. Managed by the Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC), the sardine fishery was again opened in 1986 after years of closures. In 1999 the fishery was declared 'rebuilt' and fishing could begin in earnest, the fishery averaged 43,500 metric tons per year for the next ten years.
After a period of abundance, the fishery started to show signs of distress in 2007. While concerns were voiced by conservationist groups and scientists, the PFMC decided the fishery would remain open. In 2015 the fishery was declared closed, and has yet to reopen. According to the most recent assessment by the National Marine Fishery Service (NMFS), the sardine population has declined by 95% since 2006.
Sardines are an important part of the food chain, and also a valuable commodity. They are populous here due to a cold upwelling current of water, which brings up vital nutrients from the deep ocean. Sardines are seen as an important link in the food system, as they eat plankton and are then fed on by larger animals. Species such as sea lions, birds, and larger pelagic fish all depend on sardines as a staple of their diet.
The US and Canada Sardine fishery primarily uses Purse Seine nets, which are a Green Choice by Seafood Watch. Seine nets do not touch the ocean floor, and therefore have no effect on the ocean bottom like other nets do. Additionally since sardines are known to school, the rate of incidental catch in this fishery is very low. Our fish comes from TwoxSea, which is committed to working with smaller boats using sustainable practices!
'So how did we acquire sardines this week if the fishery is closed?' you might be wondering. Although the fishery is closed, sardines are still allowed to be kept as incidental catch to other fisheries. Primarily sardines are caught as bycatch when fishermen are targeting another fish species, such as mackerel. The boats will bring their small sardine catch back to land to be frozen individually and sold at a later date when there is enough catch to have a demand. In order to discourage outright fishing of sardines there is a cap limit in place, and when the limit has been exceeded fishermen are no longer allowed to sell their sardines.
This week our catch comes from TwoxSea who works with a number of fishermen out of San Francisco Bay. TwoxSea freezes each boat's sardine catch, and then sells it when there is a large enough batch to buy. We were thrilled to have the opportunity to buy delicious California Sardines and help better support our fishermen by buying all of their available catch. We hope you enjoy your sardines, and can better appreciate sustainably caught California Sardines!