Can Portuguese sardines make a comeback?
Published September 12, 2022
10 min read
Once upon a time, on the outskirts of Lisbon, villagers threw their doors open to the street whenever they heard the clopping of donkeys laden with baskets of sardines. Every household claimed its share in Portugal’s ocean bounty. But one day in early 1773, the Marquis of Pombal, a statesman who ruled the country much as the prime minister does today, learned that yet another load of sardines had been smuggled across the border into Spain. No more, he declared.
The Marquis promptly founded the General Company of the Royal Fisheries of the Kingdom of Algarve, and a new relationship among the Portuguese coastal communities was forged: The central government in Lisbon would thereafter manage the sardine industry.
Sardine was the crown of the Portuguese coast three centuries back. The continental shelf is surrounded by cold, highly salinized water that provides nutrients for phytoplankton as well as zooplankton. This water supplies nutrients to a variety pelagic fish species. Schools of sardines in these waters could reach the size of a soccer field and exceed 10 tons.
Today, however, the Portuguese sardine industry has declined significantly, under pressure from waters warmed by climate change, as well as overfishing. Scientific data gathered since the 1900s show that Portugal is a long way away from reaching sustainable populations of the Ibero-Atlantic sardine stock it now shares with Spain. Portugal joined the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea in recent decades to protect its fish resources. This intergovernmental marine science organization promotes the sustainable use of the seas.
The Pacific sardine population, which extends from Mexico to the Canadian border with the United States, faces similar challenges. Those fish provide not only fresh and canned food for humans, but also feed marine species such as whales, sea lions, sea birds, and even Chinook salmon.
In 2020, a monitoring campaign by the Portuguese Institute of Sea and Atmosphere (IPMA) and the Spanish Oceanography Institute announced some good news: a sardine biomass increase of around 110,000 tons–the most exciting rise in the past 15 years. A cause for hope, yes. But not a reason for relaxation, says Goncalo Carralho, Sciaena director, a non-governmental organization that promotes sustainable fishing. Carvalho, a marine biologist and policy specialist, says that the past has shown the devastating consequences of poorly implemented conservation measures. According to ICES data, provided mainly by IPMA but also by Spanish research institutions, the loss of sardines in just 31 years has been colossal. In 1984, sardine biomass measured around 1.3 million tons; in 2015, it was just one-tenth of that.
‘The sea is full of sardines’
To observe a traditional sardine catch off Portugal’s coast, fisherman Fabio Mateus invites me aboard his trawler Flor de Burgau. Mateus is concerned about the legislative pressures on the Portuguese fishing industry. In 2019, the Portuguese government took drastic and unprecedented measures, limiting the annual catch quota to around 10,000 tons of sardines, down from 14,600 in 2018. The decision was fiercely contested by the fishing community and the canning sector. But at the end of 2019, the stock showed early signs of recovery.
Still, “with the low price of sardines nowadays,” Mateus says, “I’m not sure how long we’ll be able to hold on if the government doesn’t increase the quota.”
About five miles off the Cape of Sao Vicente, the balmy night air does nothing to blur Mateus’s laser-focused gaze, even though it’s nearly dawn. He hopes that our journey will show the recovery of the Portuguese Sardine population after a decade-long period of legal restrictions on fishing. Mateus and many of his fellow fisherman believe they have reached a turning point. Mateus, as he navigates the trawler through darkness, promises that “it is true that we have gone through times of crisis” Mateus’ optimism is betrayed by the lack of fish.
Indeed, a few minutes before the sun rises above the horizon, the mission that began at 2 a.m. seems destined to fail. Then suddenly, a red flash appears on the boat’s sonar display. Six members of the crew of the trawler are thrown from their bunks below the deck by the sound of a horn. They sprint to grab their gear.
The nearby flurry o seagulls or bottlenose dolphins is my cue for me to jump overboard with my camera. I watch below the surface as the men circle a school of Sardinines using a purse seine net. Mateus directs the trawler around a circle of a thousand feet, leaving a line marked with yellow buoys on the surface. Beneath the line, netting drops to a depth of 300 feet. A support boat called a chata stands by. When the circle is closed, the men throw cables between the vessels and draw a line to the bottom of each net. This creates an underwater pouch, or purse, that prevents the fish from escaping.
Engines roar, and great, black-backed gulls dive through the water column like torpedoes. My ears ring, and my heart beats. The net’s deadly embrace makes Sardines dart all around. The capture takes less than an hour.
On the trip back to the Sagres fish market, with some 6,500 pounds of sardines aboard, the fishers celebrate. Mateus teases, “So, was it right or wrong?”
Outside of traditional fishing, pioneering aquaculture projects–cultivating fish in controlled aquatic environments–may aid in the species’ recovery. Blind tests have shown that even though consumers may prefer natural sardines, they cannot distinguish the differences in flavor between farmed and natural fish. Experts believe that mackerel, a more plentiful species, could be a solution. While mackerel might not be a good substitute for fresh, wild sardines’ flavor, it may be a valuable ingredient in canning, where new processing techniques and spices can make the difference almost imperceptible.
Waiting for proof of recovery
On another day I join Ricardo Serrao Santos, Minister of Maritime Affairs, on an expedition aboard Poema do Ma. “Nowadays, fishers are well informed and sensitive to the issues affecting healthy and productive sardine seasons,” he says. “But we must include the whole sector to ensure fishing’s stable future.” As we leave the dock, we hear the silvery flashing of tons of freshly caught Sardinines, bouncing in their thermal transport boxes and flopping as we head towards shore.
According to the politician, who spent more than two decades as an oceanography researcher at the University of the Azores, the industry is still waiting for indicators from the scientific community that sardine populations are continuing to recover. He says, “As soon it is proven that stock is at least at medium productivity, then we can loosen restrictive measures.”
This story was originally published in National Geographic‘s Portuguese edition.
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.