The little fish that we can: California’s sardine industry, now and then

School of SardinesWhen the subject of Monterey, California, comes up, most people think of two things: the magnificent scenery and the peerless aquarium. I think of a third: sardines.

Two days after Thanksgiving, I took a day trip to Monterey to see the dramatic coastline and experience some of city’s connection with sardines firsthand. I skipped the aquarium on this visit, instead taking a quick walk along Cannery Row and visiting the Monterey Maritime Museum in search of information about the history of Monterey sardines. In my wanderings, I came across some interesting historical documents and found that locally canned sardines are returning to Cannery Row.

Sardines then
In the mid-20th century, the sardine fishery off the Monterey coast seemed bottomless, resulting in a network of canneries along the waterfront (Cannery Row, a place made famous by the John Steinbeck novel of the same name, and now a top tourist destination of Monterey). At their peak, they processed millions of pounds of fish each year while providing jobs to thousands*. In the 1940s, the Pacific coast sardine catch accounted for around 25% of the total seafood catch in the U.S., making it a key part of the war effort. But it was not to last. By the mid-1940s, the fish were gone, the canneries closing, as the chart below shows (it is from another post on sardines at Mental Masala). The current thinking is that a combination of overfishing, pollution, and the natural cycle of the sardine contributed to the rapid decline in the late 1940s.


Sardines now
Sardines are once again being netted along the California coast, this time under strict regulation by the state of California — in 2002, over 80,000 tons of sardines were landed in California, according to a Seafood Watch report on the Pacific Sardine (PDF). Although more than 90% of the fish are exported to be turned into bait, fishmeal, fish oil and pet food, a Monterey entrepreneur is trying to bring canned sardines back to Cannery Row (and elsewhere).

While strolling through the maze-like Cannery Row complex — which is now a collection of shops, restaurants and unusual museums — I ran across the Cannery Row Sardine Co., a new venture started by Daren Warnick. Seeing a nexus between the renewed sardine harvest, interest in omega-3 rich foods and the local foods movement, Warnick made an arrangement with fishers and one of few fish canneries in the area, Dave’s Gourmet Albacore in Santa Cruz, to produce a new line of canned California-coast sardines, complete with a label that looks like those printed in the boom times. The canned sardines are sold by mail and in a few places in the Monterey area.

An excellent article by Kera Abraham in the Monterey County Weekly describes the history of the sardine business, the company’s origin, and some of the challenges presented by sardines. Although the price of fresh-caught sardines is shockingly low — most sell for 3 to 6 cents per pound — the small size of the fish and lack of canning infrastructure make it easier to ship them overseas for processing and canning — often to the Philippines, where the cost of labor is low — and then shipped back to the U.S. for sale.

Sardines are getting press more and more respect. The Washington Post had a multi-article feature on the fish and its fans, as did the Atlantic Monthly, and the San Jose Mercury News (a piece by Aleta Watson that is archived at her website).

Creating bigger markets for sardines that will be directly eaten by people could be good not only for fans of the fish and entrepreneurs like Warnick, but also potentially the ocean. Fishery experts say that these new direct markets will allow a higher price for fresh fish, thus leading fishing boats to catch far fewer fish to pay their expenses. I think that makes a certain amount of sense, but also think that fishing boats will still catch the quota, selling whatever they can for a variety of prices.

The other chicken of the sea
Among the ship models, artifacts, and explanatory signage at the Maritime Museum in the historic heart of Monterey (home to some very important California history, like the Customs House, the oldest government building in California; and Colton Hall, the location of the state’s first constitutional convention — and hopefully not the last, given California’s FUBAR constitution), I found some interesting displays about the now-gone sardine and abalone industries.

Alongside a label from SARD-X — a fertilizer made from sardines — a sign explained that around 1920 the canneries began making a chicken feed from the bones and other wastes from sardine processing. It resulted in better chicken at lower costs, aiding in the preservation of the California chicken industry. The museum quotes a biologist who said that “Foster Farms Chickens owes its life to the bones of the Monterey sardine.”

As the fishery ramped up and the quantity of fish caught surpassed the demand for fresh and canned fish, companies started to convert (or “reduce”) whole fish into fishmeal and fish oil for livestock feed and fertilizer. During one period, there were even ship-based reduction plants for sardines and anchovies that floated outside California’s territorial waters to avoid government limits on how much fish could be directly reduced to meal and oil.


Near the SARD-X label was a reprint of an advertisement from the 1945 Pacific Fisherman Yearbook showing smiling livestock and touting the benefits of fish as feed:

Special fish caught way out in the ocean are processed while fresh and converted into “those priceless ingredients” FISH MEAL and FISH OIL. We like it because it’s good for us. We lay more and better eggs, and put on more weight. We have more and better children.”

The Government has put us on ration points, now we only get 1 part of Fish Meal mixed with 39 parts of other feed; without the Fish Meal we feel very bad, we want more, but we also want to get the war finished.

….if you live in any part of the United States you can receive the benefits of fish caught in the ocean by way of — better eggs, poultry and bacon.

Livestock feed or fertilizer is a perfectly good way to fully utilize heads, tails and entrails as a resource. Directly processing perfectly edible fish like sardines and anchovies, however, into meal is another matter. In today’s food system, a significant fraction of the fish caught at sea ends up in animal feed. A 2005 review in Annual Review of Environment and Resources, estimated that of the 95 million metric tons captured from wild fisheries in 2001, nearly 20% goes to feed chickens, pigs, and other livestock. In past years, fishmeal has been inexpensive, as fishing technology improves and new waters are opened up to exploitation. The anchoveta (Engraulis ringens) fishery off the coast of Peru has only been operating at large scale only since 1958; it currently supplies about 10 million metric tons of fish each year, which is almost all reduced to fishmeal and fish oil (H/T to Jennifer of Guilty Planet for pointing me to the paper containing this information)**.

I’ll have more to say about fishmeal in a future post.


* The canneries produced such noxious odors that some people called the city “Monterey-by-the-Smell,” a reference to nearby “Carmel by the Sea.” The conflicts around odors are cataloged in a scholarly article by Connie Y. Chiang (Bowdoin College) called “Monterey-by-the-Smell: Odors and Social Conflict on the California Coastline,” in the Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 73, No. 2, pages 183–214, doi:10.1525/phr.2004.73.2.183.

** For more on fisheries like the Peruvian anchoveta fishery, see “Forage Fish: From Ecosystems to Markets,” by Jacqueline Alder, Brooke Campbell, Vasiliki Karpouzi, Kristin Kaschner, and Daniel Pauly in Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 2008. 33:153–66. doi: 10.1146/annurev.environ.33.020807.143204

9 Responsesto “The little fish that we can: California’s sardine industry, now and then”

  1. Ken Peterson says:

    Sorry you missed the Aquarium. We still have the original boilers from the Hovden Cannery (largest on Cannery Row, last to close) and an extensive exhibit about the sardine industry — including historic video of workers on the canning line at Hovden Cannery from the ’40s. You can even sound the cannery whistle that called workers to the job when the fleet came back with its loads of fish. –Ken Peterson, Monterey Bay Aquarium

  2. Dennis Stein says:

    Great posting!  I own Sea Rocket Bistro in San Diego and visited Monterey a few days after you…  see sardine pics at the bottom:

    I pick live sardines up at the dock here in San Diego twice a week.  We grill them and serve them whole as well as fillets on a sardine caesar salad.  It’s an amazingly tasty, healthy, and environmentally friendly fish for people to eat!  Here’s a video of sardine fishing in San Diego last year:

  3. Roger from UK says:

    I was in Monterey earlier this year and it was fantastic, the water was so clear and the wildlife so prolific! If you walk to the left of the pier along the walk/cycle/jog path in the gardens there is an old wooden Sardine holding pen that I assume floated in the bay to keep the fish fresh.

  4. Joel says:

    Fresh sardines are one of my favorite fish in a variety of forms. You can get it at some traditional sushi restaurants by asking for Iwashi ( Some of my summertime afternoon parties were enjoyed by stuffing the cleaned cavities of whole fresh sardines with minced onion, sliced cherry tomatoes, sliced lemon, sliced garlic, tossing in olive oil, salt, pepper, and chopped parsley, and then grilling the little fish over hot hardwood charcoal for 1-2 minutes each side. Just fork the fillets off the bones and enjoy with the stuffing.

  5. Kera says:

    Fantastic post, Marc. Interesting info you’ve dug up on the connection with the chicken industry. (Canned, boneless sardines even have a sort of chickeny taste.) I’ve also come to look forward to the fresh sardines offered around here, usually mesquite grilled,  during the limited sardine fishing seasons in January, July and September.

  6. I live just a few miles north in Marina and love taking walks along the Aquarium in to Pacific Grove. My girlfriend and I have year passes to the institution and visit it at least a few times a month. The beautiful nature of the south bay has become more of a home to me than anywhere else. I love the community support shared between the Aquarium and its neighbors. Without the support of researchers, community organizations, and volunteers this shoreline might be as congested as Southern California’s Newport Beach. Sadly, I’ll be leaving the bay next June but will always remember the aquarium and its unforgettable surroundings.

  7. Zack Reidman says:

    I’m a fan of sardines as well. Just a gentle note to let you know, if you didn’t already, that the picture of the school of fish at the beginning of your article are Mackerel, not sardines. I only know because they’re great fish to eat as well!

  8. Zack — thanks for the clarification. The photo is from iStockPhoto and was tagged with “sardine,” so I went with the photographers ID.  For the benefit of Ethicurean readers, could you tell us how you determined that the fish are mackerel and not sardines? Was it their coloring, or the shape of the head, or something else?

  9. azure says:

    Canned sardines were a treat for my sister & I when we were small (lived in the US midwest).  As I grew older, I saw recipes for fresh sardines in Spanish & a few British cookbooks but I didn’t think you could get fresh sardines in the US–not on the west coast anyway.  But then I went to a meeting in Oakland, CA, last September and a few of us went to dinner in SF after the meeting.   We went to an Italian restaurant in North Beach & fresh sardines were on the menu, I ordered them & they were excellent!  I asked our waiter where they’d gotten the sardines from–locally he said.  After I’d returned to the OR coast, I started asking around & discovered that I can get them from a local restaurant/fishmonger that specializes in local seafood, in June.  That seems to be when the season begins here. I talked to two local chain markets in town, they have the two best supermarket fish counters (other than the place mentioned above, which isn’t part of a chain)–one buys from local fishermen–but both said, nope, never, only seen sardines in a tin. So I guess there’s a need for education regarding sardines. I’m definitely looking forward to June & my first opportunity to cook & eat fresh sardines.