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Going Green: Selling sardines

Lower-tropic species move menus toward sustainability

Low-trophic species like sardines are making their way
    onto more menus. - Photo courtesy of Adam Krammer
By Lisa Duchene
July 01, 2009

On the menu at Nopa, a San Francisco restaurant, the appetizer of West Coast smelt soaked in buttermilk, dredged in organic flour, fried crispy and served with a flavored aioli and Romesco sauce for $9 is called Little Fried Fish. But the staff refer to it as "fries with eyes."

Diners are hardly squeamish. On an average night, the restaurant, which bills itself as an urban, rustic eatery, serves about 40 to 50 plates of smelts.

"Sometimes we see a little pile of heads come back, sometimes there are none," says Laurence Jossel, chef and partner of Nopa, which has menued the dish, sometimes made with anchovies, since it opened three years ago.

The fish is caught near the California-Oregon border. Its local aspect and place in the marine food web are part of the restaurant's sustainability story. Species like smelts, sardines, anchovies and mackerel have not exactly been top-of-mind white-tablecloth seafood fare.

But that may be changing. Sardines are popping up on high-end restaurant menus in the San Francisco Bay area, New York and Miami. "Sardines are sexy," declared Food Network celebrity chef and host Alton Brown, according to a blogger, at a two-day sustainable seafood event held in March at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. Celebrity chefs also talked up sardines at the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Cooking for Solutions Sustainable Foods Institute in mid-May.

Getting chefs and consumers to try and enjoy sardines has become a mission for Michael Sutton, Monterey Bay Aquarium VP and director of the Center for the Future of the Oceans. He is one of four California foodies who call themselves "sardinistas" and are dedicated to promoting the sardine, which is once again plentiful off California's coast.

"We think there's a real opportunity for a triple bottom line here with sardines," says Sutton, referring to the ecological, social equity and wallet-friendly values of sardines.

Ecologically speaking, all shellfish, farmed herbivores like tilapia and wild finfish like sardines, anchovies and smelts are generally considered low-trophic, or animals close to the plant base of the marine food web pyramid. The reason this can benefit the marine environment is a basic, ecological principle: At every step up the marine food web, 10 percent of the biomass is lost, says Dr. Barry Costa-Pierce, a fisheries professor at the University of Rhode Island in Kingston, R.I., and director of Rhode Island Sea Grant.

The biomass in the oceans is concentrated at the base of the pyramid, near the plants and those animals that directly feed the plants.

"It should be part of [buyers'] sustainable seafood policy to educate people that lower-trophic level species are ecologically friendly," says Costa-Pierce. "There's a lot of biomass there and very healthy products."

Phytoplankton, the base of the pyramid, is the No. 1 trophic level and harvests energy from the sun to nourish the rest of the plants and animals in the marine environment. It is also rich in omega-3 fatty acids, so species one or two levels up are abundant in omega-3s, without the bioaccumulation of toxins like dioxins and methylmercury found at the higher food web levels of 4 and 5. (At Fishbase.org you can search by common or scientific name to see a whole scientific profile, including trophic levels, of more than 30,000 species.)

"Having more people eat sardines and anchovies is a really good thing. It's good for the heart and good for the planet," says Costa-Pierce. Part of the issue is using energy and marine resources wisely to feed the most protein to the most people, says Costa-Pierce. Low-trophic species typically represent more protein captured per gallon of fuel spent, which also makes them a low carbon footprint option.

Not all scientists agree on the relative importance of eating low-trophic species. Andrew Rosenberg, a professor of natural resources and the environment at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, N.H., says trophic level should not eclipse other key components of sustainable seafood, such as whether a fishery is well-managed, meaning not overfished, conducted with minimal bycatch and without harm to its habitat. If all of those criteria are satisfied, Rosenberg considers a wild fish sustainable and its trophic level is a matter of personal choice.

Like many issues surrounding sustainability, the low-trophic one is not simple. Michelle Cho, wild fisheries specialist at the New England Aquarium, which advises seafood buyers on sustainability, says eating low-trophic can be a good idea for human health and other reasons.

"But done to excess," says Cho, "this can have cascading consequences both up and down the food chain."

Dr. Daniel Pauly, fisheries professor at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, B.C., who has published extensively on fishing and the marine food web, says the critical issue is about easing pressure on the marine environment by wisely using what we already take from it.

There is a huge fishery already for the not-so-sexy fish like sardines, herring and mackerel. Fisheries for the species were industrialized in the 1950s, and small pelagic fish make up 37 percent of total fish landings worldwide. Nearly all of the catch is processed into fishmeal and oil for raising poultry, pigs and farmed fish.

As we move up the food web, says Pauly, using lower-trophic fish to raise land animals and higher-trophic fish, we are losing protein and value and spending more energy for less protein.

"You could in principle argue that the amount we catch doesn't have to increase," says Pauly. "If instead of feeding it to chickens and salmon we eat it directly."

Pauly's advice to seafood buyers is to diversify as much as possible (if we all ate exclusively sardines that would create other problems) and look to European and Mediterranean cuisines for inspiration to figure out ways to promote little fish. The popularity of calamari is a great example of marketing a low-trophic species like squid.

But health alone, of course, doesn't sell. Fish has to taste good. Enter celebrity chefs critical to drawing public attention to low-trophic species.

"It's surprising to me how excited chefs are to help bring the sardine back," says Sutton, noting interest from trend-setters like the Food Network's Brown and Alice Waters at Chez Panisse in San Francisco.


Contributing Editor Lisa Duchene lives in Bellefonte, Pa.


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