The Perks of Eating Sardines

Sardines might not be the most appealing, but eating them will help our ocean wildlife

When people think fish, they might think salmon, halibut or even tuna, but rarely do they think of sardines. However, The Perfect Protein, a new book by Andy Sharpless, the CEO of Oceana, argues that eating some of the least desirable fishes might not only save the ocean, but might also be good for us.

In the last several decades, people all over the world have been moving towards heavy protein diets. According to the Earth Policy Institute, the annual consumption of meat in China was at 8 million tons in 1978, with the number today at 71 million. But with so much increased meat consumption comes environmental problems, like deforestation, biodiversity, water depletion and greenhouse gases, not to mention the fact that we’ve overfished our seas to the point of collapse.

Which is why Sharpless’ point to encourage greater fish consumption is intriguing. One of his main arguments is that by eating lower on the sea food chain, like sardines, mackerel and anchovies means we might be able to sustain a supply of healthy protein without depleting marine wildlife. These fish forage at the bottom of the ocean on algae and plankton, and about 90 percent of them are processed into fishmeal and oil. However, Sharpless says the way of getting more of these fish eaten by humans is to change their status in kitchens around the world. 

Ellen Piktich, the executive director of the Institute of Ocean Conservation Science at Stony Brook University agrees with Sharpless. “The best use of [a] dead anchovy,” she says, “I would say that it’s better for people to eat it than to feed it to pigs or chickens or farm-raised salmon.” By feeding them to non-humans means you’re essentially converting more fish into fewer fish. And they’re actually good for you, because they’re excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids. 

If more people were to develop a similar appreciation for anchovies, sardines and the like, the demand might shift away from feeding them to animals and towards having them on your plate. “What we have to do is really change attitudes,” she concludes.