Celebrating the Small but Mighty Tinned Fish

A dark blue background with swimming fish and small can of anchovies

Cultures across the globe have a long and storied history of producing and eating tinned fish.

The Portuguese are famous for their canned seafood, the Vietnamese have their cá hộp Ba Cô Gái, but in the United States, it is only recently that shelf-stable fillets and fish bits have come into vogue.

We’re not kidding. The likes of Bon Appétit Magazine have hailed tinned fish’s thrifty versatility. “Yes we can” trumpeted The Guardian, before sharing photos of colorful tins and high-end recipes. Refinery29 proclaimed that tinned fish had “taken over the internet.” But amidst the clamor and hubbub of the tinned fish craze, we think it’s more important than ever to recognize that some fish, tinned or not, are more sustainable than others.

We’re eschewing our FAD-free tuna in favor of showcasing low-trophic level tinned fish like sardines and anchovies. Trophic levels are what form a food chain, with the lowest level organisms typically feeding on plants, and the highest level feeding on organisms lower in the chain. In the case of marine ecosystems, humans have long over-harvested higher-trophic level species. In fact, many of the fish that regularly grace our tables, like tuna, mahi-mahi, or cod almost exclusively eat other, smaller fish which are lower on the food chain.

In a groundbreaking 2011 study published by the University of British Columbia – Vancouver’s Villy Christensen et al., the ocean biomass of predatory fish was shown to have declined by nearly two thirds in the last 100 years. The study also found that the biomass of prey fish had increased, due to decreased predation. In an interview with the New York Times, Christensen went on to urge consumers to buy more small prey fish, instead of predatory fish, which he claimed would “help rebalance the fish species in the ocean.”

This National Seafood Month, we’re taking a page out of Christensen’s book. But beyond being posh and sustainable, low-trophic level tinned fish are downright delicious, too. We’ve enlisted Louisiana-born Bon Appétit Executive Chef and resident seafood expert Shaun Holtgreve to prove it. Shaun has put together a set of recipes that creatively utilize sardines and anchovies. The next time you’re in the grocery store or seafood market, hop on the tinned fish bandwagon and give Shaun’s recipes a try.