Photo: Tiny sardines offer great guilt-free value

Sardines are a true rarity – a guilt-free food item.
(Credit: James Kilfiger via Flickr)

By David Suzuki with Faisal Moola

When the six-year-old daughter of David Suzuki Foundation sustainable fisheries analyst Scott Wallace returned from a birthday party, excited about the hockey cards she got in her loot bag, her Dad asked, "What players did you get?" She replied that she got the "sardine twins" from the Vancouver Canucks.

Most Canadians are aware of the value of the Sedin — not sardine — brothers to the Canucks, but we don't know much about the value of eating sardines and other small fish.

Last month, renowned UBC fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly and his colleagues released a study in National Geographic magazine that looked at the global "seafoodprint", a measure of all the plant matter required to sustain seafood production. The higher up the food chain a seafood product occupies, the more photosynthetic energy is required to produce it and, therefore, the larger its seafoodprint.

For example, eating a pound of tuna represents roughly 100 times the seafoodprint of eating a pound of sardines, according to Dr. Pauly.

As long as harvests are tightly controlled to ensure that only a small portion of the total mass of living organisms is taken, eating species lower on the food chain takes much less of the world's ecosystem energy and is therefore more sustainable.

Species such as sardines, anchovies, herring, and mackerels — collectively categorized as small pelagic fish — already make up about 37 per cent of all fish landed from the ocean. The data are varied, but it appears that only about 10 to 25 per cent of small pelagic fish caught in the world are directly consumed by humans. The remaining 75 to 90 per cent are ground up into fish meal and oils to feed pigs, cattle, farmed salmon, and chicken, or are used as bait to catch larger fish — an inefficient use of perfectly edible protein.

Aside from their merits as a sustainable food source (visit, small fish are inexpensive, typically caught without using a lot of fossil fuels, and among the healthiest foods a person can eat.

Health Canada recommends that pregnant women eat sardines and similar seafoods because they are valuable sources of omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins, calcium, and protein.

Because these fish are found in tight schools, capturing them requires little chasing around, dragging of nets, or setting of lines, so their carbon footprint is low. Some research suggests that small pelagic fish may be the most efficient protein system in the world in terms of the energy used to capture them.

In 2009, B.C. sardine fishermen received about three cents a fish. I could go to Port Hardy during sardine season and buy a truckload for the price of an average Canucks ticket, $150. This same mass of halibut would cost about $15,000 — 100 times more.

You'd think that any food that is tasty, healthy, sustainable, and cheap would be a preferred consumer choice, but direct per capita consumption of these types of fish in North America has dropped steadily since about 1985, and last year, the only remaining sardine and herring canning plant in the United States shut down.

The trend in the U.K. and Europe is the opposite. There, these types of fish are steadily growing in popularity. In the U.K. alone, demand for the Cornish sardine went from seven tonnes a year to 1,800 tonnes in less than 15 years, an increase attributed to consumers wanting local, nutritious, and sustainable options.

Sardines are the second-largest fishery in Canada's Pacific waters. But about half of the British Columbia catch is sold as bait for the high-seas long-line fishery for tuna — ironically, a highly unsustainable enterprise. Less than a fraction of a per cent is actually eaten by Canadians. On the Atlantic coast, only a small proportion of the herring caught is eaten by humans. The rest provide bait for the lobster fishery.

Sardines are a true rarity — a guilt-free food item. Every serving is one less used as bait or eaten by a pig, chicken, cow, or farmed salmon. Given the nutritional value of sardines and other small fish, it's possible that eating them is one of the secrets to the success of the Sedin brothers. After all, they're from Sweden, where small fish have always been a popular food choice.

October 13, 2010

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Oct 06, 2015
4:36 PM

I called the Whole Foods on Robson because like the other person who commented, I live in BC on the West Coast and its not easy to find these brands..I was asking for Wild Planet and he said he wants them to at the store but he cant get any as they have a new SUPPLIER and they arent getting any. He has no reason why. Stuck.

Nov 07, 2010
9:25 PM

Hey I totally agree with what you are saying but what solutions can actually be implemented to guide people towards the suggested consumption pattern than the current one? I think our environmental problems are a good example of market failure where many of the costs associated with producing or consuming a good are externalized, ie. drivers don’t pay for the entire cost of air pollution caused by their car.
There are signs of hope everywhere but I truly believe that it will take a crisis to really wake people up and get them to change.
I am a pragmatic omnivore who dreams to make enough income to be able to minimize my eco-footprint while maximizing the nutritional benefits I receive from food. Check out my blog sometime. Cheers.

Nov 02, 2010
2:22 PM

sardines,now where can the average shopper find these little guys? besides canned. i’m on the west coast and i can’t find them anywhere

Oct 19, 2010
12:10 PM

first of all i waana appreciate the 20 years service towards informative world

well, your statement “The higher up the food chain a seafood product occupies, the more photosynthetic energy is required to produce it and, therefore, the larger its seafood-print” is hilarious… beside one should keep balance of vitamins, calcium, protein, etc in order to enjoy energetic health…


Oct 18, 2010
9:02 PM

Dear David Suzuki Foundation,

First, thank you for your efforts in educating Canadians in the need to reduce our carbon footprint. I appreciate the information I receive through the Science Matters column, and enjoy the read.

As you probably know, people who are concerned about the welfare of this planet, are inclined to be concerned about the welfare of animals, too, and that concern can influence them to choose becoming vegetarian or vegan. When you designate sardines as “guilt-free food”, your credibility with those people is damaged, because those who choose not to eat animals are sidelined in their efforts to live in a non-harming and carbon neutral way.

As a vegetarian, I choose not to eat animals. As a person concerned about the environment, I consider that choice to be a good way to reduce my carbon footprint. When my environmental stewardship mentor (which is how I view the David Suzuki Foundation), dismisses that choice by claiming that sardines are a guilt-free food item, it is disheartening and offensive.

I’m sure the scientific perspective of sustainable eating of sardines is accurate, but to assume that you posess the lofty authority to designate that living being as “guilt-free food”, is arrogant. Human arrogance has no place in the conservation of our planet (it’s probably the cause of its degradation) and I am sorry to hear that arrogance voiced by the David Suzuki Foundation.

Oct 15, 2010
8:04 AM

You are so right…it’s always been considered “bait” here in the US and we would never “lower” ourselves to eat them. How ironic is that! I’ve never had one so I’m off to find some recipes and figure out how to incorporate them in our meals. Thanks as always David for your refreshing insights. Fondly, Roberta

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