It doesn't have the cachet of the chinook salmon or the prestige of the Dungeness crab, but the often forgotten sardine is a born-again fishery in Oregon now capturing some interest in both Japan and Korea. With the annual harvest of sardines about to begin this spring off the mouth of the Columbia River, the Oregon Department of Agriculture continues to build on the marketing momentum that followed initial sales last year in Asia.
"We've made tremendous progress largely because of our efforts to get samples of Oregon sardines into the hands of importers, wholesalers, and manufacturers in both Japan and Korea," said Dalton Hobbs, ODA assistant director.
That progress comes despite some huge obstacles associated with the Oregon sardine. Fish consumption in Asia is much higher than it is in the United States. Among the favorites, particularly for the Japanese, has been the sardine. However, the sardine fishery in Japan has dramatically decreased to the point where the stocks are nearly depleted in some areas. Oregon's own sardine industry has rebounded from virtual nonexistence to the point where it is the viable fishery it was prior to World War II.
In the past, a big drawback has been the Oregon sardine's size and the Asian desire for a smaller fish for the traditional bait market.
Another issue has been the texture of the Oregon sardine, which has a fat layer close to the skin, rather than throughout the entire meat of the fish. That difference has kept the Asian market from seeing the Oregon sardine as an equivalent product.
"We still need more time to educate people on the product," said Patrick Mayer, international trade manager with ODA's Agricultural Development and Marketing Division. "They are used to a sardine that is 20 percent smaller than what we normally have. There has been a visual aversion to a sardine that big, particularly at the retail level. In fact, an average consumer in Japan and Korea might not think it is a sardine. But Asian consumers are so seafood-oriented that we have great potential to expand on the business."
No longer is the Oregon sardine considered just fertilizer or bait. Oregon State University's Seafood Laboratory in Astoria has been working the past few years on developing new technologies for sardine processing. The same kind of technology that helped Oregon develop the Pacific whiting fishery is being used for sardines.
However, one of the best ways to add value to Oregon sardines is to do nothing.
"If we could simply air freight sardines in a fresh state to Japan, they would command a much higher price than if they are canned or frozen," says Hobbs, noting the great Japanese desire for fresh seafood. Such an effort would require Oregon sardine fishermen to handle the catch much differently and more carefully.
All these efforts are ultimately designed to help the local economy of the north Oregon Coast. Shoreside sorting and processing of sardines has brought jobs and dollars to the Port of Astoria. Five years ago, there was no such fishery. But today, more than a dozen boats are putting out the nets to capture the Oregon sardine.
In 2003, the latest year statistics are available, sardine landings amounted to nearly 56 million pounds with a value of more than $2.9 million.