Sardines in an Overfished Sea

“The oceans are really polluted nowadays. Last time I bought sardines, they were dead and covered with oil”, says a popular joke. Sounds funny, right? But if you look deeper into more facts behind this joke. Something, or rather several things that are not funny.

But before going down to facts, let us get to know more about sardines.


Sardines is defined by Britannica as any of particular food fishes of the herring family or any of the large family of soft-finned bony fishes, Clupeidae, such as the genera Sardina, Sardinops, and Sardinella, qnd sardine can be referred to the common herring (Clupea harengus) and to other small herrings or herringlike fishes when canned in oil. They can grow about 15 to 30 cm (6 to 12 inches) in length. They feed on planktons and live in dense school.

History of Sardines

The Merriam-Webster dictionary mentioned that the word sardine was first used in the 14th century. It also appeared in English in the 15th century from the French word sardine that derived from the Latin word sardina indicating the island of Sardinia.

In United Kingdom, sardine is called pilchard. Pilchard fishing and processing started in Cornwall, England around 1750 to 1880 and went into decline before the following years. The Pilchards were exported to Roman Catholic countries such as Spain and Italy which were known as fermades. According to Cornish Sardines Management Association, Cornwall sardines are sold as Cornish Sardines. Under the EU law, Cornish sardines have protected geographical states since March 2010.

Meanwhile, in the United States, the NBC News mentioned that during 1875, in Maine, United States, a sardine cannery opened. By 1900, there were 75 canneries in the United States. However, the production has been declining which led to the closure of canneries. In 2010, the last sardine cannery in the United States already closed.

In France, according to Cook’s Info, the Millet Company in Port-Luois, Morbihan planned for tinning sardines, but it did not appear because the said plan was not realized. This led to Pierre-Joseph Colin as someone seemed to be the first to tin sardines at his vegetables canning factory in Nantes, France around 1820. In June 8, 1822 edition of “Le Journal de Nantes et de la Loire Infèrieure” as cited by, the writer called it “invention prècieuse” and in 1824, at 9 rue de Salorges, France, Colin came up with his new factory that would manage the demand of sardines. This continued to produce until 1835 where he produced 36, 000 of tin sardines annually.

In other part of Europe such as in Spain, sardines are really much appreciated. Oftentimes, sardines are used to describe a certain situation such as the space problem in a public transport. For instance, the Spanish idiom, ” I felt like a canned sardine” is one classic example. Canned sardines’ production is dated back to 1810 through Napoleon’s initiative. Napoleon promoted the said invention.

In Asia, sardines consumption is evident. For example in India, sardines are freshly eaten while fried sardines are more popular than the canned sardines. In Japan, sardines usually come in dry such as the dried niboshi. In Morocco, Morrocans have Morrocan sardine ball in tomato sauce and fried stuff sardines in their recipe. While in the Philippines, sardines played a huge fishing industry that makes the country rank as among the major fish producing countries.

How significant is sardines for modern society?

Sardines have a lot of impacts to our society. It involves socio economic, personal and environmental health of many societies:


The sardines industry plays greatly in the economic activity. For instance in Canada, according to Population Media Center, in the mid-1920s to mid-1940s, sardines supported a major fishery in British Columbia. Thus, when the sardine fishery collapsed, it loses $32 million.

In the Philippines based on the 2018 data of the Competitive Industry and Service Sectors report, the fishing sector employed about 1.42 million people. This included the people working in the sardines industry. This employment rate helps Filipino families to support their households in financial aspects, and this shows (as the sardine industry being included in the fishing sector) that it also helps the Philippine economy to thrive.

In fact, the Department of Trade of Industry of the Philippines noted that the Philippines is among the top suppliers of sardines. Its Zamboanga Peninsula alone can produce 85% of sardines and has the capacity to meet the demand of entire Asia. In this time of Pandemic,  one of the leading brand of sardines in the Philippines, Ligo Sardines, donated its entire advertising budget to Covid-19 response of charities and non-government organizations to show its solidarity to Filipino people (Dela Cruz, 2020).

Health Benefits of Sardines

Another benefit of sardines is its nutritional values that you can get even if sardines are the less expensive. According to Verywell Fit, a can of sardines in oil when drained well will provide you the following:

  • Calories – 125g
  • Fat – 7g
  • Sodium – 184 mg
  • Fibers – 0g
  • Sugar – 0g

Protein – 14.8 g

A serving of canned sardines has nearly 15 grams of complete protein, including all of the essential amino acids. Sardines are a healthy way to boost your protein intake.

Vitamins and Minerals

Sardines are high in iron and calcium, with just 5 sardines with bones (the bones are edible) providing 1.75mg iron and 229mg calcium. Sardines are also a good source of vitamin B12, vitamin D, vitamin E, magnesium, potassium, and zinc.

Protects Cognitive Function

Sardines and other types of seafood have been associated with lower cognitive decline. Seafood is protective against some types of Alzheimer’s disease, strokes, and dementia. DHA, a type of omega-3, is especially helpful for maintaining a sharp memory. For optimal memory function, include sardines in your meal plan twice a week.

Strengthens Muscles

Sardines supply complete protein and essential fatty acids for muscle building and fuel. Instead of loading up on processed protein powders and bars, sardines provide all the amino acids your body needs to build strength without unnecessary additives.

Promotes Heart Health

Sardines are also high in fatty acids which is the omega 3 that is good for the heart. Fatty acids help in storing energy, insulation in the body and protect the vital organs.

The omega-3 fatty acids in sardines protect the heart in several ways. Omega-3s reduce LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and increase HDL (“good”) cholesterol. They lower blood pressure, prevent abnormal heart rhythms, and decrease hardening of the arteries and blockages. Increased sardine intake in people with diabetes has been shown to reduce inflammation and cardiovascular risks.

Supports Healthy Pregnancy

Omega-3s are essential for a healthy pregnancy, especially when it comes to the baby’s brain and vision development. For this reason, women of childbearing age are advised to consume two or three servings of fish per week. Sardines are on the “best choices” list due to their low levels of mercury. They provide the benefits of fish with minimal risk of mercury toxicity.

Builds Strong Bones

Sardines are a good source of both calcium and vitamin D (which enhances calcium absorption). Most adults should aim for 1000mg of calcium per day, the recommended dietary allowance (RDA), to get enough to maintain strong bones. A 3-ounce serving of canned sardines with the bones provides over 32% of your daily value of calcium. Regular intake of sardines, along with some muscle-building exercise, can help protect your bones from weakening with age.”

Sardines’ Role in the Environment

Sardines are also beneficial to ecology. The key role they play in the marine system processes is quite important. Sardines also become the food of the larger fish in which maintaining the balance of the marine food web. Aside from the being the prey of large fish, sardines are also the source of food for seabirds.

All in all, sardines contributes a lot to human health, economy and ecological sustainability.

Crisis on Overfishing

There is another problem that the ocean is currently facing aside from oil spill and plastic pollution. This current problem is called overfishing. But what is overfishing?

According to National Geographic, overfishing is “the taking of wildlife from the sea at rates too high for fished species to replace themselves”, and it is noted to start about 1800 when humans looked for blubber for lamp oil that affected the whale population.

Another definition given by WWF is that “Overfishing occurs when more fish are caught than the population can replace through natural reproduction. Gathering as many fish as possible may seem like a profitable practice, but overfishing has serious consequences. The results not only affect the balance of life in the oceans, but also the social and economic well-being of the coastal communities who depend on fish for their way of life”.

With this, based on the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations 2018 report, the FAO estimates that one-third of world fish stocks were overfished by 2015.

The Conserve Energy Future blog states the following effects of overfishing:

Removal of Essential Predators

Sharks and tuna are particularly susceptible to overfishing. When they are removed from the areas they live in, this means that sea creatures further down the food chain are negatively impacted. Populations can grow larger, and the role that these larger creatures play – from what they eat to how their bodies decompose – mean potentially fatal effects for ocean ecosystems.

Poor Coral Reef Health

Larger amount of smaller marine species comes greater damage to the ocean’s ecosystem. For instance if the coral reefs would be damaged, other problems can also occur.

Growth of Algae

In controlled amounts, algae are essential to helping marine life thrive. But if it is allowed to grow at will, it can impact fish, reefs, and more, leading to serious destruction.

Unintended Catches

Another concern of overfishing is that because the industry is so large, there are a number of sea creatures who get caught in the process, but don’t get used for food. This can mean everything from dolphins to turtles can be impacted by the presence of fishing fleets.

The Threat to Local Food Sources

There are a number of communities around the world that rely on fish as their primary resource for food. The growth of overfishing has caused a serious threat to these communities, which are often located in developing countries. Without the ability to catch their food, their populations are threatened.

Financial Losses

A lot of these communities that rely on fish for food also rely on low-level fishing industries for economic viability. These enterprises, as opposed to large-scale fishing ones, typically do far less damage to their marine life because they are on a much smaller scale. However, when these communities can’t access food or their financial support, they are likely to have trouble in the future.

An Utter Imbalance of the Marine Ecosystems

As has been pointed out earlier, overfishing has a very detrimental effect on marine ecosystems. The situations can be so bad that the fishes might not be able to sustain themselves any longer.

The Targeted Fish and its Harvest

The demand for fish increases with an increase in the population. Also, as it happens, a few species of fishes have a higher demand than the others. This makes them the targeted fish species.

Rise of the Endangered Species

We must remember that with the rise of the targeted species, another category of species grows too. These are the untargeted species that soon turn into endangered species. This happens because of the prevailing ecological imbalance and also because proper efforts are not put in place to increase their population in a waterbody.

Improper Aquaculture

In order to be able to reinforce proper ecological balance in the water bodies, it is essential that the fisheries are equipped with not just the proper instruments but also the proper scientific knowledge to be able to practice proper aquaculture. Due to this lack of proper scientific knowledge, the aquaculture practices are vastly improper.

Given the crisis that brought about by overfishing, it is obvious that if the problem on overfishing will not be addressed, the loss of marine lives in the marine ecosystem will occur drastically on the coming years.  

How are sardines related to overfishing?

The demand on food such as the canned sardines requires supplies. This leads to high fishing rate. The American Association for the Advancement of Science stated that fish like herring and anchovies aren’t safe from commercial fishing. In another study, it was indicated that “when fishing rates are high, populations collapsed to level six times lower than they would have been”. According to Timothy Essington of University of Washington, Seattle, the period of increase in fishing rate is also at the time when the fish population is struggling.

According to Oceana, the assessment of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) on the 2017 West Coast Pacific sardine shows that the population declined to 95 percent since 2006 to its lowest level in decades from 1.8 million metric tons down to just 86,000 metric tons. The review of the data shows that the sardine fishery was taking fish faster than the population could replenish itself between 2010 and 2014, exceeding sustainable levels.

The environmental impact of sardines industry

The sardines industry is part of the fishing industry. With this, the sardines industry can affect the environment since it engaged in fishing activity. The World Atlas mentioned that fishing industry has direct damages to marine habitats because fishing has a direct action to these habitats.

Some fishing techniques can also affect the marine ecosystem. One of these is the bycatch. Bycatch is the unintentional catching of target species and target size of species. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development further defined bycatch as the “total fishing mortality, excluding that accounted directly by the retained catch of target species”.

Another fishing technique that causes damage is bottom trawling. Bottom trawling is when a fishing net is pulled along the seafloor behind a boat that can result to damage of coral reefs and can remove 25% of seafloor bed.

Long line fishing is also another problematic technique with baited traps and hooks like crabs. Long line fishing has longlines that could extend to 50 miles with thousand hooks.

These are just some of the fishing practices that you have to take note to avoid this practice when engaging in fishing activity or of those people who are working in the sardies industry.

Aside from the destructive fishing practices, sardines industry has another environmental concern to consider. According to the study entitled, “Environmental Life Cycle Assessment of Canned Sardine Product from Portugal” by Almeida et al, “production of both cans and olive oil are the most important process in the considered impact categories. The production of olives contributes to the high environmental load of olive oil, related to cultivation and harvesting phases. The production of aluminum cans is the most significant process for all impact categories, except ozone depletion potential and eutrophication potential, resulting from the high energy demand and the extraction of raw materials”.

Provided that the sardines industry require new amount of tin or aluminum cans means to require of extracting raw materials from mining companies since not all metals do undergo to recycling facilities. And it is already proven that mining can do more harm than good especially when you consider its environmental impact. Whereas, production of olive oil also increase carbon footprints since it requires heat to be able to extract the oil. This will add more to the climate change problem that we are facing.

Solutions to Overfishing

While it is known that overfishing is quite detrimental to the environment, it is also necessary to come up with solutions. Here are suggestions to address overfishing:

Rights-Based Fishery Management

Traditional fishery management structures encourage fishers to catch as much as possible in the shortest amount of time. But the traditional structure isn’t the only way that fisheries can be run. Under rights-based fishery management, fishers are guaranteed a certain portion of the catch, but also agree to adhere to certain limits.

Sustainable Fishing Reforms

Sustainable reforns can be applied to fishing on the open seas and international waters. Regulation nets and fishing equipment can prevent high levels of by-catch, fish and other sea creatures that aren’t being targeted by fishers but are picked up by equipment like trawling nets. By-catch have a high mortality rate and are sometimes destroyed before being returned to the water. Preventing or discouraging by-catch will help keep the environments that fishers work in healthy.

Traceability Standards

Traceability standards require that fish importers and vendors label sold fish with information about where the fish came from. These disclosures help make the supply chains that deliver fish from catch to market more transparent and help root out illegal fishing. The standards also better inform consumers about where their fish is coming from.

Declaring Marine Protected Areas

Declaring certain waters protected and tightly regulating — or outright halting — fishing in those waters is scientifically proven to be one of the most effective overfishing solutions. Expanding the size and reach of these marine reserves is a simple way to prevent overfishing and restore marine ecosystems. Convincing governments to both commit to a full restriction of fishing and provide the resources necessary to enforce those restrictions may be more difficult than partial protections.

Fish Farm Standards and Reform

There should be an implementation of fish farm standards and reform, for instance, 1.5 million salmon escaped from fisheries into the open sea around British Columbia between 1987 and 2008 — a result of loose or damaged netting. And even more major breaches have happened in the past few years. These fish — which are sometimes designer salmon, bred as food and not to survive in the wild — intermix with the local populations of wild salmon after they escape. The resulting offspring is less durable and less capable of survival. Farmed salmon are also often crammed into tight and dirty conditions, and are more likely than wild salmon to be carrying disease and parasites.

International Fishing Regulations

Some activists and scientists have even called for an outright ban on fishing in international waters — about 58% of the ocean’s surface. Given the effectiveness of protected waters in saving fish population, and the current lack of regulation of fishing in international waters, this policy would likely be an extremely effective overfishing solution. But it may be hard to convince international governments to both adopt the policy and commit the resources necessary to enforce it.

Overfishing Education

Educational subsidies and government programs could help inform fishers about the consequences of overfishing — and in areas where fishing is regulated, help fishers learn to comply with regulations without sacrificing profit or productivity.

Fishing Subsidy Reform

Subsidies to the fishing industry can unintentionally increase the number of fishers on the water — it’s estimated that there are two and a half times as many fishing fleets as there need to be to satisfy demand. Ending these subsidies could help reduce the number of unnecessary fishing fleets on the water.

Protecting Essential Predator Species

Essential predator species, like sharks and tuna, are some of the most prone to overfishing. These species are also highly necessary for the maintenance of local ecosystems. Without predator species, there is a boom of prey species, leading to overpopulation, algal bloom, and eventually serious environmental damage.

Agricultural Investment and Reform

People will continue to fish if there’s nothing to eat, no matter what sort of regulations are in place. Invest in sustainable agriculture practices, education and tools to improve agricultural output and consistency of output. Providing a sturdy source of staple crops will help prevent reliance on fishing, and make those communities that are most vulnerable to famine better fed.

While we recognize that reforms and policies can do something to address the issue on overfishing, we as individuals can take our part by being mindful of what we consume and see how we can reduce the consumption of fish to lessen demand from the fishing industry since everyone’s effort is necessary to address such issue.

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