Unpacking Packed Sardines
By Corby Kummer
In January a tuna-obsessed party of cooks, teachers, and bon vivants got on a bus at dawn in a San Diego parking lot and headed south across the Mexican border and down the hilly, dramatic coast of Baja California to the thriving port city of Ensenada, where the groggy group (many of them assembled by Sam Popkin, a food-loving professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego) transferred to a chartered boat that motored for more than an hour into the Pacific. It slowed, and conversation quickened, when it came to its destination: several net-enclosed pens the size of backyard swimming pools, in the open sea, surrounded by small boats whose crews were preparing for an incomparably colorful and bloody spectacle—the slaughter of bluefin tuna to be air-freighted to the daily Tokyo fish auction.
Tuna have not yet been raised commercially from egg to maturity, and so underwater feedlots—analogous to the beef industry’s enormous holding areas for fattening cattle on corn—are an excellent way to bring bluefins to the peak of perfection for the exigent and profitable Japanese market, which pays a premium for sushi-grade fish.
Conversation stopped as the first majestic fish was lifted onto a barge covered with electric-blue tarps. Swarms of men dressed from head to toe in school-bus-yellow rubber held the fish by the gills and killed it with a spike between the eyes. The scene was oddly beautiful in its Matisse colors—the gray-blue of the lordly fish, calmly facing its fate; the brilliant yellow covering the men; the blue of the tarps; and the deep maroon of the thick blood. “Take off your hat when speaking of the dead,” Philippe Charat, whose company, Maricultura del Norte, owns the feedlot, said to a member of the party.
I was along not to eat the sushi and sashimi that the other guests would devour the following night at Charat’s home, in Rancho Santa Fe, a tony residential colony near San Diego. I wanted to focus instead on the very last thing we saw as we pulled away, to which the rest of the group paid little heed: a silvery stream of iridescent live fish swirling over the pens for the afternoon feeding of the tuna that had, this day, been spared. Shoveled into the water by workers in a small tender beside the pens, the silvery fish were fresh sardines. They are a large part of why these bluefins fetch such a high price. I had something in common with the tuna: I wanted to eat sardines too.
Sardines have had a surprising and important revival in the Pacific. For decades in the 20th century their abundance gave birth to an industry that fed millions of soldiers fighting both world wars and sustained thousands of Sicilians, Asians, and other foreign-born workers—the fishermen and packers of Cannery Row, in Monterey, California—during the worst years of the Depression. Visitors to the Monterey Bay Aquarium can see photographs and machines from the cannery that originally occupied the building, and promotional films from the 1930s and ’40s showing the factory life that was the backdrop of John Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row. (You can also watch the films at www.mbayaq.org.) The California sardine fishery was the largest in the Western hemisphere, and in its peak season, 1936–37, fishermen took 726,000 tons of sardines.