Know Your Sardine
Thursday, July 16, 1998
Out of an industry that once numbered 28 canneries, only one exists today. Monterey Fish Company in Sand City is the last of the line, with its brightly colored cans of Sardinaps sagax found under two labels: Sea Wave (their domestic brand) and Bono (for export). And, speaking strictly from experience, they''re delicious. Especially when a little marinara, capers and red onion enter the picture.
The boom year for sardines was 1936. One and a half billion pounds of these silvery sprats were landed in California back in ''36, much of which was processed on Ocean View Boulevard. But the 35,000-pound haul for Monterey''s 1947-48 season only slightly improved during the next few years before finally fizzling out. By the time the street was officially renamed Cannery Row in 1953, the industry was pretty much gone.
The question of what really happened to the sardines is a lingering one. But, in one of the best historic accounts written on the area, A History of Steinbeck''s Cannery Row, Tom Mangelsdorf presents interesting arguments on both sides of the question.
"Cannery Row committed economic suicide. The sardine industry grew too quickly, improved its technology too superbly, and pulverized and squeezed too many sardines into meal and oil instead of canning them reasonably for human consumption. The sardine supply yielded its abundance for too many years until the human capacity to harvest the fish far outstripped the sardine''s ability to reproduce," he wrote.
But Mangelsdorf also presents another side of the story, citing a scientific study that "holds a little promise for the future." Diane Pleschner, manager of the California Seafood Council, makes reference to the same body of work to gain an understanding of what science is just beginning to uncover. "Scientists now have much better understandings of the ocean cycles," says Pleschner. "Research was done out of Santa Barbara with core samples done out of an anaerobic deep-water trench offshore. They found layers of sardine scales, and layers of anchovy scales, and correlated that to broad-scale warm and cold water temperature cycles.
"Now they know that sardines are abundant when the waters are above normal in temperature," she continues. "And conversely, they know that anchovies are abundant when the water is colder than normal. That''s gone on for thousands of years, documented down in the bottom of the ocean. They''ve gone on to realize that fishing certainly has an impact on a topical abundance of seafood, but in certain cases like this, the greater abundance has to do with natural cycles and not fishing cycles."
The California Seafood Council was created in 1991 as a quasi-governmental organization representing the fishing industry for the purpose of public awareness and education. Pleschner helps do that by explaining current regulations. "We have a very conservative percentage of the biomass (of sardines) that we''re allowed to harvest. Whatever the biologists estimate, we can take 15%. Our laws are conservative to a point that we reduce our quota by an estimate to allow for the Mexican harvest from the same population. Unfortunately, they don''t work under the same quota system.
"California fishermen are the most heavily regulated of any Pacific Rim fleet, to my knowledge, in the world. And we pay a price for that. It''s important for consumers to know what''s fresh and local and to support their local industry," Pleschner finishes. "Otherwise, we''re not able to compete with the competition." cw