Caught in the Sardine Shortage Net

Pacific sardines are having a foodie moment. They're high in healthy oils, low in price, rich in flavor, and rated as one of America's most sustainable sea foods by the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program. But the little fish's moment may be short-lived.

Sardines at Monterey Bay Aquarium, Allie Caulfield

Earlier this month, West Coast commercial sardine harvest levels were cut by 70% through mid-2014 as concern grows over declining sardine numbers. The new rules affect coastal fisheries off California, Oregon, and Washington State. A debate is on about whether the drop is cyclical or a sign of more dire shortages to come. But whatever the reason, commercial fishers, retailers, and even eco-tourist outfits could feel a ripple effect.

Fewer sardines for wholesalers and bait buyers

It's worth noting that "sardine" is an industry term that includes several species of small fish in oceans and seas around the world. The Pacific sardine, the one that's limited by the new rules, is a small but tasty player in the fishing industry's big pond. It migrates along the West Coast, yielding an annual harvest brought in by about 60 boats that's worth up to $15 million per year, according to the San Jose Mercury News. Sardine fishermen can try to make up the difference by fishing for other small species such as anchovies or for squid, which is abundant off the California coast.

Their current customers can't necessarily make those same substitutions and could face higher sardine prices next year. A lot of the Pacific sardine catch becomes bait for commercial tuna fishing, but some is packaged for U.S. retailers as a viable alternative to canned tuna for budget-minded shoppers and some is sold to restaurants, where its sustainable-seafood status and relatively low price make it a foodie novelty.

Fish wholesalers like Bornstein, which says it often sells out its sardines "before the boats leave the dock," could see more demand and less supply. If the new limits are extended into the second half of 2014, sardine harvests by its Oregon and Washington suppliers will be limited during the peak July through September season. And while British Columbia, another source for West Coast wholesalers, isn't subject to the U.S. rules, its sardine population collapsed entirely this year. There, commercial boats caught no sardines at all in an area that typically hosts a $32-million annual haul, according to Canada's National Post.

Less fish on the consumer's dish

That could put retail brands and grocers in a bind just as sardines are enjoying a culinary renaissance. Canada's Raincoast Trading, which supplies Whole Foods, offers as its newest product packaged wild Pacific sardines in a variety of flavors. Washington's Acme Food Sales sells wild-caught Pacific sardines under its Pacific Crest label on Amazon.com at $55 per pack of 50 tins. California's Wild Planet supplies wild-caught sardines to Whole Foods and Amazon as well. Look for prices to go up if stocks and limits stay low through next year's peak season.

One premium sardine line that may not be hit hard is StarKist's Gourmet Selects line of sardine fillets. It debuted last summer at Wal-Mart and other grocery stores in the southern U.S. and may expand into more markets next year, according to a report in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. While Gourmet Selects command a premium price (for sardines) at about $2.50 a tin, they're not labeled as Pacific sardines, which means StarKist (a subsidiary of South Korea's Dongwon Group) could source them from Atlantic and Mediterranean fisheries―although according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program, those stocks are in decline as well.

Sardines and ... eco-tourism?

The sardine shortage may be affecting marine mammals' food supply, and that could indirectly hurt West Coast eco-tourism. Some researchers blame last spring's low numbers of Pacific sardines and other small fish for the months-long drama along Southern California's beaches, as starving sea lion pups washed ashore in droves and rescue groups struggled to save as many as they could. Frolicking sea lions are typically a popular tourist draw at places like La Jolla and Redondo Beach. Painfully thin and dying baby animals are not good for business.

Larger animals farther north may be feeling the sardine shortage, too. The National Post reported that whale-watching tour operators and wildlife biologists noted a big drop in the number of humpback whales coming close to Vancouver Island last summer―just a few instead of the usual hundreds. Whale-watching is a $2 billion a year global industry, and the Vancouver area is considered one of the continent's best whale-watching spots. Orcas are the main draw there, but humpbacks and other species round out the area's cetacean-sighting calendar.

So what's the net effect of the sardine situation? No one knows for certain yet whether the shrinking population is part of a natural cycle or due to climate and ocean changes, and for now the limits are only in effect through June of next year. The Pacific Fishery Management Council will review scientific survey data and hear public comments before its April meeting, when it will set harvest numbers for July 2014 to June 2015. If the current limits are extended or tightened up even more, look for an "affordable delicacy" to get more expensive.

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