Last week, I submitted sardine-stuffed tomatoes for a recipe contest at the Pejepscot Historical Society honoring Marjorie Standish, an icon of Maine cooking. In the process of selecting what to make, I pulled out several other old Maine cookbooks. They were all full of sardine-based recipes. And yet, sardines have all but disappeared from your average Maine menu these days.

1938: Capt. Frank Holbrook and crew caught a large haul of sardines. Portland Press Herald photo courtesy Portland Public Library Special Collections and Archives

Part of the reason for this is that there just aren’t as many sardines around. In a state that once had more than 50 canneries to handle the massive catch of sardines, there now isn’t even a single one left. The last one, Prospect Harbor’s Stinson Sardine cannery, closed nearly ten years ago. To clarify, “sardines” are simply small-sized herring. Maine’s “sardine” is Clupea harengus, the Atlantic herring – chain. The little ones less than six inches or so are sardines and the larger ones are herring. Herring are filter feeders that provide food for lots of seabirds, fish and marine mammals. They typically migrate from inshore areas in the summer to areas further south and offshore, like George Bank, in the winter.

Maine sardines were traditionally caught in weirs, fixed nets spread across small coves, designed to trap schools of sardines. That all changed with the arrival of fleets of modern foreign fishing boats in the 1960s. They caught herring by using purse seines and mid-water trawls along with electronic technology that helped them to locate large schools. These fleets caught massive amounts of herring in the Northwest Atlantic, which resulted in a great decline in the population in the 1970s.

Since then, the establishment of an international border that keeps out foreign boats along with other management measures has led to a gradual recovery in the population, although it is still nowhere near historic levels. Because herring are migratory, the fishery is managed by two interstate groups – the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC) and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC).

The decline of the sardine is, unfortunately not limited to Maine. Sardines can be found all over the world, or they used to be. There are many different species of these little oily schooling fish, all called “sardines” and many of their populations have suffered drastic population crashes. This is primarily due to overfishing, but also has been as a result of temperature fluctuations.

The second part of the reason that sardines aren’t currently commonplace on the Maine table is that they’ve fallen out of favor in the American palate. You’re more likely to think of them as lobster bait than something you’d find on your plate. In fact, Atlantic herring are one of the most common types of lobster bait, although low catch levels this year meant many people turned to other sources.

Ironically, about ten years ago, I lived in Sardinia, a place that was once so teeming with sardines that it gave them their name — same story of population decline there as in Maine. The difference is that people in Sardinia still love to eat oily fish. They are a common part of the Mediterranean diet. The benefits of these fishy oils are thought to be part of why Sardinia is home to some of the longest-lived people on the planet. Most of their sardines come from Morocco, which is the largest canned sardine exporter in the world.

While it may not be easy to get local sardines, little oily schooling fish are a good choice not just for health reasons, but also because they are now being managed responsibly. NOAA Fish Watch currently lists Atlantic herring as a sustainable choice due to the regulations in place. There’s one company in Maine, Bar Harbor Seafood, which cans sardines from the Gulf of Maine. They have several different varieties of sardines, herring, and kippers. These are not a different kind of fish, but instead a style of preparing them – a “kippered” herring is split open like a butterfly from head to tail and laid open. It is then typically smoked or pickled.

Take a look in the “canned seafood” section of the grocery store for the many varieties of these tasty small fish and lookup an old-time recipe to give them a try, or just eat them right out of the can. Mediterranean style is my favorite.

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