Five Things You Need to Know About the Sardine

The sardine is a familiar fish. Known by billions, from Norway to New Zealand and from San Francisco to Shanghai, there are big stories to be told about this small fish. But to begin with, what exactly is a sardine?

To name a fish

Even deciding what fish species should be called sardines is tricky. More than 90 species have been called a sardine, or a sardinella, at one time or another. However, if you stick to the definition given by the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), it is the species belonging to the genera Sardina, Sardinops or Sardinella. Depending on which authority you consult, there are between 21 and 24 species. Outside of that scope, on the east coast of the United States, small herring used to be called sardines. And today, in Norway, sprats or brisling are still called sardines.

What is the difference between a sardine and a pilchard?

In Europe, until recently, sardines that were longer than 15cm (or 10cm with head and tail removed) were called pilchards. Smaller fish were called sardines. However, this classification has now broken down. Today, Cornish fishermen favour calling their catch Cornish sardines, irrespective of size. The name is now an EU-ratified regional designation. This contrariness is common when it comes to naming fish. Across the world, sardine and pilchard are essentially interchangeable names for the same fish.

Militant women

The sardine-processing women of Breton, France, in the early 1900s were called penn sardines – literally ‘sardine heads’. Their name was ascribed to two characteristics: the white caps they wore at work, and the sardine head they cut off when processing the fish. They were paid a ‘piece rate’ for the number of sardines they processed. Wages were appallingly low – 1.50 to 1.75 francs for processing one thousand fish. At that rate they earned about 1 franc a day (and about one-quarter that of men in equivalent local jobs). In 1905, the penn sardines went on strike to protest their low pay, piece rates and poor working conditions. At the vanguard of French activism, they won their fight won to gain concessions, including a shift to hourly wages.

A symbol of protest

In July 1973, Japanese fishermen dumped 5 tonnes of sardines at the gates of the Chisso Corporation factory in Minamata. The company had been discharging mercury compounds into Minamata Bay. The mercury became concentrated in food chains, accumulated in fish and other seafood, which was then was eaten by local people. The paralysed and distorted bodies of poisoned people spawned the name Minamata disease. More than 900 died of the condition, and thousands more were affected. The Chisso Corporation agreed to pay compensation to some of the sufferers, but not to the local fishermen whose livelihoods had been devastated: hence the protest.

The saviour of a world-renowned library

One of the world’s premier libraries would probably not exist today were it not for the Devon pilchard industry. In the late 1500s, the Oxford University library that was to become the Bodleian was in disarray. Stripped of any books that might symbolise Catholicism, the depleted library was looking for a saviour. This arrived in the form of Thomas Bodley – an academic and diplomat. He had married a wealthy widow, Ann Ball, who in turn had inherited a thriving business from her deceased husband, a pilchard merchant. Bodley used proceeds from the pilchard business to inject funds to resurrect the ailing library. In 1602, the same year Bodley received a knighthood, the newly housed Bodleian Library was opened. Today, it is the second largest library in the United Kingdom.

The sardine is a paradoxical fish. Seemingly insignificant, its exploitation has made fortunes for some and, when stocks have collapsed, caused hardship for many. Its status has shifted from utilitarian food to gourmet’s delight. In my new history of this fascinating fish, Sardine, I travel across four continents to meet the sardine in its natural environment, and to trace the story of this fish from classical Rome to the present day.

– Trevor Day

Originally a marine biologist, Trevor Day is a writing consultant working with several UK universities. He is the author or co-writer of more than 25 books in marine science and life sciences, including Whale Watcher (2006) and Oceans (2008). You can order his latest book, Sardine, via our online shop.

Great book

Posted 2018/11/09 by Juli (05 stars)