The Great California Sardine Fishery Boom and Bust

Sardines at Monterey Bay Aquarium, photo by Greg Hirson on Flickr (CC-BY-NC)

While doing some research for my “Eating by the Numbers” piece for Edible San Francisco, I ran into some fascinating documents about the now-gone California sardine industry. Today’s tourist destination of Cannery Row occupies land and buildings that were once a huge industry, employing thousands and providing a significant fraction of the U.S. seafood1.

But it was just a blip in history.

In only a few decades, it boomed and busted, and by the 1950s the fishery and canneries were wiped out. The first figure below shows the annual Pacific sardine (Sardinops sagax) catch from the waters off the Pacific coast of the U.S. 2

The second shows Monterey’s annual output of canned fish during the mid-20th century 3


Sardine Landings on US West Coast
Cans of sardines packed in Monterey

Much has been written about the collapse of the fishery. One source that I consulted, a UC Berkeley dissertation by Kathryn Davis [see note 3], gave a succinct summary of the reasons for the collapse. They included overfishing, changes in ocean temperatures, the natural cycle of the fish, and pollution in Monterey Bay. The pollution came from many places, including post-World War II munitions dumping by the navy off the California coast, use of DDT in agriculture (starting in 1944), extensive dumping of dead fish and offal into Monterey Bay, and run-off from urban areas.

A chapter in a book about fishery management4 offers another factor for the sardine collapse: the innate behavior of the fish. Sardines are a schooling fish, meaning that they travel together in large numbers. This behavior was probably evolved as a defense against predators: a fast-moving mass of individuals causes confusion and protects those on the inside of the school from a marauding shark or swordfish. But against fishing nets and sonar, it’s not so helpful. It takes a lot less effort to find and catch fish when they are all clumped together in a school than when they are spread across miles of open ocean.

There are theories that the sardine population is cyclical, running in a 30 or 40 year cycle, so the massive schools may return to Monterey Bay.  The California Department of Fish and Game considers the California sardine fishery to be fully recovered (strict catch limits are in place).  In 2002, over74,000 tons of sardines were landed in California, according to the Seafood Watch report on the Pacific Sardine. More recently, another population crash for Pacific sardines have led to closure of the U.S. sardine fishery.

Considering the world supply of sardines, although many fish experts recommend eating small fish, the picture is pretty bleak, with all European and Atlantic sardines currently having an “Avoid” rating from the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program. There are, however, some Pacific sardine fisheries that have been certified by the MSC, and are a better choice, as the Seafood Watch page about Pacific sardine explains.

Image Credit

Photo of sardines from Greg Hirson’s Flickr collection, subject to a Creative Commons License


  1. One source that I consulted (I can’t remember which one) said that the Pacific coast sardine catch accounted for something like 25% of the total seafood catch in the U.S. in the 1940s.
  2. Catch data for 1916-17 to 1962-63 from the Proceedings of the California Academy Of Sciences, Vol 34 (1966-67) and data for 1963-64 to 1967-68 from Resource Management and Environmental Uncertainty.
  3. Sardine oil on troubled waters : the boom and bust of California’s sardine industry, 1905-1955, by M. Kathryn Davis, UC Berkeley, 2002, Department of Geography. Available for reading in the Earth Sciences library on campus and will also be coming out as a book someday. Davis is currently on the faculty at San Jose State.
  4. “The Collapse of the California Sardine Fishery – What Have We Learned?” by John Radovich, in Resource Management and Environmental Uncertainty (M.H. Glantz and J.D. Thompson, eds.), John Wiley & Sons, 1981

1 comment

  1. Great data, thanks Marc!

    I wish fresh sardines were easier to come by around here. No one knows how to prepare them, they’re a lot of work so the stores don’t carry them. Easier to find for live bait in Fisherman’s Wharf.

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