ASTORIA - Oregon sardines are packed with protein and healthful oils useful in the prevention of atherosclerosis, heart attack, depression and cancer. Yet, despite their obvious health benefit, sardines are generally used for fertilizer or bait, not as a source of human nutrition.
Researchers at Oregon State University's Seafood Laboratory in Astoria want to change that by developing new markets for sardines as food and nutraceuticals.
Since the 1930s, when sardines fueled Cannery Rows from California to Washington, the Pacific sardine went from boom to bust, and now is booming again. But the fish being caught these days are not your grandfather's sardines. Oregon sardines are much bigger than those little fish packed in tins of mustard sauce. They're up to 10 inches long, and they pack a nutritional punch, brimming with omega-3 oils. It's the oil and the protein in sardines that interest researchers at OSU's Seafood Laboratory.
According to Michael Morrissey, director of the OSU Seafood Lab, the amount of oil in sardines increases from 10 to 25 percent of their body weight as the fish pack on fat during the summer months. As a result, sardines caught in August can provide more than twice the omega-3 oils than those caught in June.
Market demand is increasing for high quality fish oils and omega-3s for use as nutritional supplements.
Morrissey is working to isolate and concentrate the omega-3 oils in Pacific sardines. He is experimenting with a new procedure to extract fish oil from fish flesh by shifting the pH level of the processed fish to extremes of acidity or alkalinity. The procedure uses no heat, so both the fish oil and the protein maintain high quality throughout the extraction process.
Jae Park, a food scientist at the Seafood Lab, is using the same procedure to extract more and higher quality fish protein from sardines.
A few years back, Park and others at the Seafood Lab helped develop the technology to transform another undervalued fish, Pacific whiting, into surimi, a versatile fish protein used in a variety of delicacies that mimic crab, lobster or ham. That technology helped transform Pacific whiting into one of Oregon's largest fisheries, contributing $15-20 million annually to the Oregon economy.
Park has utilized the pH shift process to extract more protein of higher quality from Pacific whiting, and remove the fish smell from the final product. Now he's testing that process on sardines. The end product would be a fish protein isolate that could be used as an ingredient in a variety of seafood products, including fish sauce and surimi.
The Seafood Lab's sardine research is good news for coastal communities in Oregon, where the cyclical nature of fisheries forces the fishing industry to stay flexible and seek new opportunities.
Pacific sardines supported the United States' largest commercial fishery from the 1910s through the 1940s. Then sardine stocks entered a steep decline. Fossil evidence suggests that Pacific sardines have experienced such boom-and-bust cycles about every 60 years over most of the last two millennia, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.
The Pacific sardine fishery has been rebounding since the mid-1990s, according to Morrissey. Schools of fish are located by airplane and harvested by purse seining vessels. Several seafood processing plants at the mouth of the Columbia River have invested in new blast freezer systems specifically for the sardine fishery.
"The Pacific sardine fishery represents an important economic boom for Oregon, as a new fishery that can provide new, value-added processing in coastal communities," Morrissey said.