Sardines don’t exactly evoke thoughts of fine seafood to most Americans. Instead, many think of tin cans packed with greasy, mushy fish and some kind of sauce. Growing up, I only ate sardines on camping trips, and then only reluctantly. I doubt anyone would look at sardines on the menu and think “That looks good!”
But in fact fresh sardines can be delectable. Long a favorite fish on Mediterranean menus, sardines can be grilled and then served with lemon and olive oil, mixed with pasta sauces, baked, or braised. Americans on the west coast are rediscovering the lowly sardine since local populations have made a comeback in places like Monterey Bay. During the 1950s, chronic overfishing caused the collapse of the fishery, and sardines have taken years to recover. Now fish merchants are selling sardines to local restaurants at a brisk pace.
Customers who try sardines will be surprised by the taste and happy about the abundant omega-3 fatty acids, which are a very healthy addition to any diet. But the best part about sardines is the sustainability of the fishery. The sardines living in the waters off the Californian coast are carefully managed, with only three short fishing seasons allowed every year, and the fish has been certified sustainable by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program.
That means restaurants can get the best of all worlds: marketing a great tasting fish that comes from a sustainable population and is healthy to eat. As other once-popular fish selections like orange roughy, swordfish, and grouper decline because of overfishing and mercury contamination, once snubbed fish like the sardine start to look much more appealing.
Consumers value healthy, “green” menu choices. And while the sardine probably won’t hit menus nationwide, the story is an encouraging one. Surely more smart menu choices like the sardine await restaurateurs willing to look.