Sardines are tasty -- but are they sustainable? Photo: Naotake Murayama / Creative Commons.
One of the best things about winter in Istanbul is cheap, heaping plates of freshly caught hamsi (sardines), lightly battered and fried. Served with just a squeeze of lemon as a flavor-enhancer, the tiny fish are so delicate, they can be popped into the mouth whole, miniature bones and all. In addition to being very tasty, eating small fish like sardines and anchovies has always seemed guilt-free -- an eco-friendly alternative to larger species like salmon and tuna. But a new study indicates that might not be the case.Against Conventional Wisdom
Recent research "overturns conventional wisdom" that small species -- which tend to have short individual lifespans and high reproductive rates -- are better protected than their larger counterparts from ecological collapse, according to Fish2fork, an online guide to sustainable seafood at restaurants created by the producers of the documentary The End of the Line:
Researchers analyzing records of more than 200 fisheries going back half a century discovered that against expectation the populations of smaller fish were twice as likely to collapse as the bigger species.
"We were expecting to see a strong pattern with large, top predators showing the highest probability of collapse," said Malin Pinsky of Stanford University. "We were really surprised to find that just isn't the case. The important lesson is that all species of fishes can collapse once humans decide to eat or use them, from sardines to swordfish."
Recovery Capacities Overestimated?
Though the findings are inclusive about why this is the case, the researchers posed a couple of interesting theories. One is that fishery managers have been overestimating small fish populations' capacity to recover, and thus allowing them to be overfished. Another is that the small fish have fallen under the radar, so to speak, and have been left out of ecological analyses that focus on big species.
"It took looking at 50 years of data and hundreds of fisheries to realize that these collapses among small species actually add up to a whole lot," said Professor Stephen Palumbi of Stanford University. "Bringing a halt to overfishing is the best way to reduce collapses in the future."
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