It’s Okay to Eat Sardines…Right?

Sardines (Sardina pilchardus): Etrusko25 via Wikimedia CommonsSardines (Sardina pilchardus) Etrusko25 via Wikimedia Commons

Sardines are considered a sustainable seafood, one of the few fish you can eat guilt-free, right? Well, not exactly. Forage fish like sardines and anchovies are the key players in huge but delicate food webs known as wasp-waist ecosystems. These are so complex and dynamic that it’s questionable whether we have the know-how to manage them well yet. And as we’ve learned the hard way from examples off California, Peru, Japan, and Namibia, wasp-waist ecosystems collapse catastrophically whenever the stresses of climate change intersect with the stresses of overfishing (see Andrew Bakun, et al., below*).

These systems are often driven by multiyear, even multidecadal, climate patterns like El Niño and La Niña—natural boom-and-bust cycles that remain largely beyond our abilities to scientifically manage. And while some overfished wasp-waist ecosystems have recovered after decades of fishing moratoria (California, Peru), others have not (Japan, Namibia). Some, like Peru, collapse repeatedly.

Global capture of sardines in the Sardinops genus in tonnes, 1950–2010, as reported by the FAO. Based on data sourced from the relevant FAO Species Fact Sheets: Epipelagic via Wikimedia Commons

Global capture of sardines in the Sardinops genus in tons, 1950–2010, as reported by the FAO. Based on data sourced from the relevant FAO Species Fact Sheets. Epipelagic via Wikimedia Commons 

I wrote about the downside of the sardine fishery in Mexico’s Gulf of California in my latest Mother Jones print piece, “Can One Incredibly Stubborn Person Save a Species?” This is the story of my old friend Enriqueta Velarde’s efforts to save the seabirds and other wildlife of the Gulf. Year after year she’s taken on staggering problems. Today her biggest fear is the rapidly growing sardine fishery:

She’s concerned because the Gulf of California sardine fishery, Mexico’s largest by volume, landed more than a quarter million metric tons the year before. She knows the Gulf is a wasp-waist ecosystem: ecology-speak for a delicate food web dependent on forage fish (sardines and anchovies) that are virtually the only predators of all below them (plankton) and virtually the only prey of the tiers above them (bigger fish, seabirds, marine mammals)…Mexico just received a sustainability certification for its sardine fishery from the Marine Stewardship Council, which would vastly increase market demand in the US. Velarde fears that the fish, keystone to all Gulf species—including humans—will crash.

 

Tern with fish: Badjoby via Wikimedia Commons

Tern with fish Badjoby via Wikimedia Commons 

But it’s the Marine Stewardship Council, and you can trust what they say is okay to eat is okay, right? Well, not necessarily. As I’ve written here about swordfish, here about Chilean sea bass, and here about pollock, hake, Antarctic toothfish, and krill, there are increasing concerns among scientists about the criteria the MSC is using to certify fisheries as sustainable.

So before you take a bite of that sardine sandwich, you might think about all the truly vast ecosystems—composed of seabirds, bigger fish, seals, dolphins, whales, and sharks—utterly dependent on sardines and their kin. And the fact our fisheries management might not yet be capable of managing what we don’t yet fully understand.

*Papers:

  • Andrew Bakun, Elizabeth A. Babcock, Salvador E. Lluch-Cota, Christine Santora, Christian J. Salvadeo. Issues of ecosystem-based management of forage ?sheries in “open” non-stationary ecosystems: the example of the sardine fishery in the Gulf of California. Rev Fish Biol Fisheries. 2009. DOI 10.1007/s11160-009-9118-1
  • Andrew Bakun. Wasp-waist populations and marine ecosystem 

    dynamics: Navigating the “predator pit” topographies. Prog Oceanography. 2006. DOI:10.1016/j.pocean.2006.02.004

 

THE TRUTH IS...

what drives Mother Jones' team of 50-plus journalists. The truth is powerful, as evidenced by how hard those with something to hide, or profit to gain, seek to discredit it. The truth, stated boldly and reported meticulously, is what draws so many readers to Mother Jones.

And the truth is, going into the final 4 days of the year we still needed to raise $TK to hit our $350,000 goal and start 2021 on track. It's nerve-wracking, wondering if the big spike we normally see at the end of December is going to be another thing that doesn't go as planned in 2020, or worse, if, now that Donald Trump is set to leave the White House (for longer than a taxpayer-funded golf trip to a property he owns), folks might be pulling back from fighting for the truth and a democracy and think the hard work is done.

It's not, and if you can right now, please consider a year-end donation to support our team's fearless nonprofit journalism so we can close that big fundraising gap and finish the year strong, ready for all that's ahead in 2021. Whether you can give $5 or $500, it all matters in keeping us charging hard, and we'd be grateful.

payment methods

THE TRUTH IS...

what drives Mother Jones' team of 50-plus journalists. The truth is powerful, as evidenced by how hard those with something to hide, or profit to gain, seek to discredit it. The truth, stated boldly and reported meticulously, is what draws so many readers to Mother Jones.

And the truth is, going into the final 4 days of the year we still needed to raise $TK to hit our $350,000 goal and start 2021 on track. It's nerve-wracking, wondering if the big spike we normally see at the end of December is going to be another thing that doesn't go as planned in 2020, or worse, if, now that Donald Trump is set to leave the White House (for longer than a taxpayer-funded golf trip to a property he owns), folks might be pulling back from fighting for the truth and a democracy and think the hard work is done.

It's not, and if you can right now, please consider a year-end donation to support our team's fearless nonprofit journalism so we can close that big fundraising gap and finish the year strong, ready for all that's ahead in 2021. Whether you can give $5 or $500, it all matters in keeping us charging hard, and we'd be grateful.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate