These little fish pack a big nutritional punch and they’re very affordable.
We’ve been eating and enjoying canned sardines for many years. They are a wonderfully portable food– the little cans have pull-tabs so an opener is unnecessary. Our car always has a pouch with picnic forks in the glove compartment, so we can munch a nutritious bite anywhere. We throw a couple of cans into our shoulder bags for short walks or hikes. All we need is a little salt and pepper. Sardines are satisfying and delicious, plus they’re low-carb and loaded with Omega-3 EFAs.
When we stock provisions on our boat for the summer season of cruising in the Pacific Northwest, we buy many dozen cans of sardines. They are usually easy to find at “dollar” stores for very little money, even in Canada. The sardines canned in water are preferred if we can’t find those canned in olive oil. For a short while, WalMart carried Brunswick sardines in olive oil for the same price as those in water– $1.08. We’d buy flats when we were in town. It was the only thing we went into WalMart to buy! Sadly, the store has changed brands.
Trader Joe’s stocks sardines in olive oil but they are about twice what we want to pay because we eat so many. A TJ’s brand we like is a “lightly smoked” variety that is packed in olive oil for about a dollar less at $1.69 can. The smoke flavor is mild and pleasant. We keep a cache of these on hand for quick lunch food. They also make great appetizers for last-minute cruiser get-togethers.
When we are cruising in the waters of British Columbia, we frequently encounter schools of sardines. It’s fascinating to watch the dark shapes move through the water as the thousands of fish swim as one big ball. Seals pursue them relentlessly and when the pinnepeds charge through the school, the sardines burst from the surface en masse, creating a distinctive, rather percussive swooshing sound. The photo above is of a sardine we caught north of Bella Bella in an anchorage called Morehouse Bay. Clark used a sardine jig, which is a leader with about a dozen very small hooks, each tied with a small red plastic flag. Most people we’ve met use the silver fish for bait to catch larger fish like salmon, but we ate the sardines for dinner!
When we reached Petersburg, Alaska, in June of 2007, the herring that schooled in front of the cannery numbered in the millions. Kids would perch on the outermost dock and jig for them after school. The fish were extremely easy to catch. The youngsters packed styrofoam coolers with dozens of the silvery wigglers in short order. Scales flew everywhere, glistening on the docks and on everyone’s clothing. Every so often, a boy would heave a herring or three into the sky and bald eagles would swoop low over our heads to snag the fish as they hit the water. The whooshing roar of air through the wings of these large predators was impressive. Even more memorable were the sharp, outstretched talons as the eagle passed within feet of our heads!
The Petersburg herring were particularly large and we were dismayed that none of the residents or visitors were actually eating them! The town was founded by Norwegians, for goodness sake! The waters around Norway are home to the world’s best “sardines”, the brisling. These fatty fish are highly prized in the Nordic countries as a major food source. So why were the herring around St. Petersburg being sold merely as bait? We were stumped. The young people walked each dock, peddling the fish for $5 a dozen, packed in salt. We can imagine that they made quite a nice income. We caught plenty of herring for ourselves and loaded our freezer against the chance that we would fail to catch a salmon or two (using a lure) along the way.
The interest in sardines seems to be burgeoning at the moment. Perhaps it’s partly due to chef Alton Brown’s discussion of his low-carb eating plan wherein he recently dropped 50 pounds. He is a sardinista too. We hope it’s a trend that will remain strong. There are a number of very good incentives for eating these fish of the herring family, not the least of which is the excellent nutrition profile. Herring are numerous and low on the food chain, so eating them is an ocean-friendly, responsible choice. The Monterey Bay Aquarium has a program called Seafood Watch® and you can download a printable guide to making sustainable seafood choices.
A June 2009 article in The Washington Post highlights the surge of mainstream attention to these small cold-water fish. You will find a couple of recipes there too.
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.
The California sardine fishery is making a comeback after its collapse in the 1950s. Scientists have learned that the sardine population surges when the ocean’s surface is relatively warm. They continue to spread northward as the ocean warms further. They are abundant once again. “Zillions and zillions of sardines,” is how Monterey Harbormaster Steve Scheiblauer put it in this article in the Monterey County Weekly.
So, add sardines to your grocery list. They are the perfect way to add quality selenium, vitamin B12, calcium, niacin, phosphorus and omega-3 fatty acids to your diet. We will continue to relish our sardines several times a week. We encourage you to add sardines to your menu too. The benefits are delicious!
Become a sardinista!