Pacific Sardine

Pacific Sardine

Sardinops sagax caerulea


    Pilchard, California Sardine, California Pilchard, Sardina, South American Sardine, Chilean Pilchard


    U.S. wild-caught from Oregon to California



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Pacific Sardine

Pacific sardine.


The West Coast Pacific sardine fishery was first developed during World War I to fill an increased demand for nutritious food that could be canned and easily carried onto battlefields. The fishery rapidly expanded, and by the 1940s Pacific sardine supported the largest fishery in the Western Hemisphere, with approximately 200 active fishing vessels. Sardines accounted for almost 25 percent of all the fish landed in U.S. fisheries. Unfortunately, by the 1950s the resource and the fishery had collapsed and remained at low levels for nearly 40 years.

This collapse wasn’t just because of fishing pressure scientists now recognize that there was also a change in oceanic cycles, which resulted in an extended period of below-normal water temperatures. Sardines are generally more abundant during a warm water regime, so the colder water greatly influenced the decline in sardine abundance. The demise of the Pacific sardine fishery has become a textbook example of the boom-and-bust cycles characteristic of small pelagic fish and fisheries. By the late 1980s, the sardine stock began to recover as water temperatures increased and harvests had been limited. Sardine fisheries were slowly reestablished. Today, this species and fishery are thriving once again under active, science-based management, and conservative catch quotas.

Looking Ahead

Because environmental conditions greatly influence the abundance of coastal pelagic species such as sardine, scientists are concerned about how climate change will affect the productivity of these species. NOAA and its partners operate the PACOOS program disclaimer to track how oceanographic fluctuations affect marine resources, including sardines.



Pacific sardines are found from southeastern Alaska to the Gulf of California, Mexico. Sardines live in the water column in nearshore and offshore areas along the coast. They’re also sometimes found in estuaries. Sardines prefer warmer water – during the 1950s to 1970s, they abandoned the northern portion of their range because sea surface temperatures cooled and the sardine population decreased. Now that sea surface temperatures are warm again, the stock has increased and they’ve reoccupied areas off northern California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, as well as habitat far offshore from California.

Pacific sardines move seasonally along the coast. Older adults may move from spawning grounds in southern California and northern Baja California to feeding/spawning grounds off the Pacific Northwest and Canada. Younger adults appear to migrate to feeding grounds primarily in central and northern California.



Sardines grow fast to more than 12 inches long, and can live up to 13 years, but usually not past 5. They’re able to reproduce when they reach age 1 to 2, depending on where they live and how dense the population is. Off California, sardines spawn year-round, peaking in April through August between San Francisco and Magdalena Bay, Mexico, and January through April in the Gulf of California. Off Oregon and Washington, sardines spawn from May to July. Sardines spawn multiple times per season. They release eggs that are fertilized externally and that hatch in about 3 days.

Pacific sardines feed on plankton (tiny floating plants and animals). Sardines are a major part of the marine food web and are prey for many fish, marine mammals, and seabirds.




Sardines are small fish. They’re blue-green on the back and have white flanks with 1 to 3 series of dark spots along the middle.



Scientists from NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center assess the abundance of the Pacific sardine resource every year. Managers use these abundance estimates to set the amount that can be harvested in the following year’s fishery (annual catch limit).



The most recent stock assessment (2014) concluded that Pacific sardines are not overfished, and overfishing is not occurring. Many small pelagic fish such as Pacific sardines and herring are naturally variable in population size. While they’re susceptible to recruitment overfishing (when more fish are removed from the population than can be replaced), these stocks also decline in the absence of fishing due to their natural variability. Populations tend to vary over periods of roughly 60 years – population declines last an average of 36 years and recoveries last an average of 30 years. Abundance increased rapidly through the 1980s and 1990s, peaking at 1.45 million metric tons in 1999, and 1.27 million metric tons in 2006. Scientists estimated the 2014 abundance to be 369,506 metric tons.



In addition to NOAA’s surveys, the industry sponsors an aerial survey of Pacific sardine abundance. They pair aerial photographs of Pacific sardine schools with catches to generate an abundance estimate for the stock. Scientists approved these aerial surveys for use in the Pacific sardine assessment (combined with traditional survey data). The aerial survey results add valuable information on the magnitude of the abundance in the Pacific Northwest. There are plans to continue the survey into the future with the hopes of creating a new, long-term index of relative abundance.


Harvesting Pacific Sardine

The sardine stock that runs along the west coast of North America is harvested in four commercial fisheries: Ensenada (Mexico), Southern California (San Pedro to Santa Barbara), Central California (Monterey Bay region), and the Pacific Northwest (Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia).

U.S. fisheries target Pacific sardine for different markets:

  • Larger sardine are typically are sold for bait for Asian longline tuna fisheries but recently for human consumption as well.
  • Approximately 18 live bait vessels in southern California and two vessels in Oregon and Washington land about 4,000 metric tons per year of northern anchovy and Pacific sardine for sale to recreational fishermen.
  • Roundhaul and other small vessels target Pacific mackerel and Pacific sardine for sale in local fresh fish markets or canneries.

Most vessels fishing for these species use roundhaul gear including purse seines, drum seines, lampara nets, and dip nets. Roundhaul gear targets and encircles a specific school of fish, which usually contains only one species. The most common incidental catch in this fishery is another coastal pelagic species because they sometimes school together (for example, chub mackerel can be caught along with Pacific sardines). Larger fish can usually be released alive by lowering a section of the net or using a dipnet.



Who’s in charge? NOAA Fisheries and the Pacific Fishery Management Council.

Current management: Coastal Pelagic Species Fishery Management Plan.

  • Scientists assess the abundance of Pacific sardines every year. Managers use this scientific information to set the catch limit for the following year’s fishery. They allocate this catch limit among three fishing seasons throughout the year. If managers project the limit is about to be reached, they close the fishery during the season so harvests do not exceed the limit.
  • Limited entry program: fishermen must have permits to harvest sardines and management limits the amount of available permits to control participation in the fishery.
  • Provisions to reduce bycatch and increase the survival of any incidentally caught species.
  • Monitoring through logbook and observer programs.

Pacific sardines are a “transboundary resource” – they migrate across international boundaries and are harvested in both Mexican and Canadian fisheries. Currently there is no international management agreement for Pacific sardine, but scientists and members of industry from the United States, Mexico, and Canada informally meet at the annual Trinational Sardine Forum where they exchange research results and ideas. There is interest in coastwide management for the Pacific sardine fishery, which would entail a more consistent forum for discussion between the United States, Mexico, and Canada.


Annual Harvest

In 2010, Pacific sardines made up one-third of the total harvest of coastal pelagic species. Fishermen brought 66,817 metric tons of Pacific sardines to port in 2010. Due to decreased quotas in response to a decline in estimated abundance, harvest in 2011 was 46,324 metric tons. In 2012, catches increased again and 99,859 metric tons were harvested.



The 2011 sardine harvest was worth $9,733,994, while the 2012 harvest was worth $21,430,358. About a quarter of the U.S. Pacific sardine harvest is eaten domestically, typically fresh or canned. The rest is usually frozen and exported, mainly to Japan for consumption or for use as bait and to Australia for use as feed in their bluefin tuna farming operations.



“Sardine” refers to a number of small fish that are part of the herring family, with more than 20 species marketed worldwide. The Pacific sardine, fished from Mexico to British Columbia, is used for everything from fish bait and fishmeal to fresh or canned fish for human consumption.

When fresh, small sardines have a delicate flavor. Larger sardines have a fuller, oilier flavor, similar to anchovies but milder. If buying fresh, look for sardines with bright eyes, shiny skin, and a mildly fishy aroma. Plan to cook them within a day of purchase.






Sardines are very high in selenium and vitamin B12 and high in calcium, niacin, and phosphorus, but they are also high in cholesterol.

Servings 1
Serving Weight 100 g
Calories 217
Protein 24.58 g
Fat, total 12.37 g
Saturated fatty acids, total 2.791 g
Carbohydrate 0 g
Sugars, total 0 g
Fiber, total dietary 0 g
Cholesterol 82 mg
Selenium 52.6 mcg
Sodium 918 mg

*Sardines, skinless, boneless, packed in water
Pacific Sardine Table of Nutrition