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Going Green: Selling sardines
Lower-tropic species move menus toward sustainability
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
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
"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
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
"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,