But even as Steinbeck wrote the novel, which was published in 1945, the sardine population was mysteriously declining, and by the early ’50s the industry had collapsed. By the middle of the decade, Cannery Row was practically deserted. The easy explanation was overfishing: In the ’30s, “reduction” operations were grinding sardines into meal for animal feed and oil for paint, glue, and industrial purposes. But decades of close study of sardines after the collapse revealed that Cannery Row might have turned into Skid Row even without the voracious reduction plants. For 2,000 years the Pacific coastline had seen roughly 60-year cycles of sardines and anchovies (their cousins), following temperature cycles: Sardines prefer warmer water, anchovies prefer cooler, and their populations fluctuate in similar cycles around the world. After severe restrictions and moratoriums on sardine fishing that lasted from 1967 to 1986, the fish began coming back in numbers that made commercial fishing thinkable again.
But the canneries were gone for good. Pacific sardines caught today are frozen and sent to tuna-fattening farms in the waters off, for example, Australia, which is where Charat (whose Russian-born father went into the fishing business in Mexico after escaping World War II France with his French-born wife) began thinking about starting his own farm. He thought fresh sardines would make tuna taste better than frozen ones did, and he bought boats to catch sardines up and down the Baja peninsula, tendering them to the pens during the tuna-fattening season, which runs from July through March.
Farther north, in Monterey, the sardine season gets under way in late spring, and sardines are at their fattest and best in the late summer and fall, according to Paul Johnson, of Berkeley’s Monterey Fish Market. Johnson, the author of the new Fish Forever: The Definitive Guide to Understanding, Selecting, and Preparing Healthy, Delicious, and Environmentally Sustainable Seafood, has sold many San Francisco chefs on fresh sardines. “They’re really coming back strong,” he told me recently.
But that doesn’t mean that people who got used to canned tuna, which by the 1950s had replaced canned sardines on supermarket shelves and family tables, will welcome them back. The decline of the sardine population was accompanied by a decline in its reputation. In the United States, sardines had always fought an association with food for the poor—the kind of thing you eat straight from the can in a cold-water flat. Canned tuna became the wholesome food in cans, partly because it had no scary skin and bones.
But to my mind sardines taste better, and they certainly have health benefits like tuna’s. And they may be safer to eat. Omega-3s, the fats we are told will help protect us against heart disease, are now the “queen of fats,” as a recent book by the science writer Susan Allport calls them. (Linoleic acid, a polyunsaturate in many vegetable oils that has come in and out of dieticians’ favor, was the original king.) Allport’s book, a brief and absorbing guide to the past few decades of research into dietary fats, contains the obligatory nutritional advice, including, of course, a recommendation that we regularly consume fatty fish, like salmon and mackerel, and lean fish, like cod—though cod stores excess fat in its liver (whence the dreaded oil) and not elsewhere in its body, as fatty fish do.
In recent years people have become wary of tuna, because of mercury. Here the advantages of sardines, which are high in omega-3s, come to the fore. According to Steve Webster, senior marine biologist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, most tuna live about 10 years, and sardines about six, meaning they accumulate fewer toxins—making which waters sardines come from, and the level of toxins, less of a worry. The less time in the water (or the soil, for that matter), the less risky the food: Eating low on the food chain seems a wise strategy.