SAN FRANCISCO – Sardines swirling in preserved lemons. Mackerel in curry sauce. Grilled squid bathed in ink. All are culinary delicacies that have long been popular in Europe and are now making their mark on US menus.
The nation’s canned seafood industry is moving far beyond tuna sandwiches, a pandemic-era trend that began with cooped-up Americans demanding more of their staples.
Since then, the US market has only expanded, fueled by social media influencers with all the benefits of high-protein foods in brightly colored metal containers. On the TikTok channel Tinned — Fishionado, Kris Wilson posts recipes for quick meals, including leftovers mixed with rice, soy sauce, avocado, and a runny egg with a can of smoked mussels from Danish company Fangst.
Canned fish, as it’s called in Europe, is now a regular offering on wine bar menus from San Francisco to Houston to New York, where customers scoop the contents straight from the can. There are even canned fish clubs that mimic wine clubs by sending members monthly shipments of various seafood packaged in various combinations of spices, oils and sauces. Videos about canning fish, from tastings to tips on how to clean the fish smell from cans, have generated more than 30 million views on TikTok.
U.S. canned seafood industry sales grew from $2.3 billion in 2018 to more than $2.7 billion this year, according to market research firm Circana.
Becca Millstein opened a Los Angeles-based canned fish business in 2020 after eating more during coronavirus lockdowns.
“When we were all quarantined at home, preparing 100% of our meals every day, it was very time-consuming to create satiating meals,” she said. “I just ate a lot of canned fish, and at the same time, the options I found when wandering the aisles of my local supermarket were just not good.”
Millstein lived in Spain during college and they both spent time in Portugal, countries where canned fish has long been a part of people’s diets, so she knew there were better options available.
“I ate the same canned fish that my great-grandmother Rose from Brooklyn ate in the 1930s,” she said. “I thought that was crazy.”
His company, Fishwife Tinned Seafood Co., set out to offer high-quality, sustainably sourced seafood.
Millstein said she looked for canneries in Spain and Portugal and contacted fishermen along the West Coast who connected her with canneries in Oregon and Washington.
“Our mission is really just to galvanize the canned fish industry and transform it and make it what we think it can be,” Millstein said, adding that this means offering much more “than tuna sandwiches.”
Priced between $7.99 and $10.99 per can, Fishwife products are delicacies that can be served in rice bowls, on charcuterie boards or in salads, Millstein said. She added that her company’s sales grew 250% from 2021 to 2022 and are on track to jump about 150% this year, although she declined to disclose dollar figures.
To that end, Fishwife’s products include smoked salmon brined with salt, garlic salt and brown sugar and then hand-packed in cans with Sichuan chips made in the Chinese city of Chengdu. Their anchovies from the Cantabrian Sea are packed with premium Spanish extra virgin olive oil, sourced directly from farmers in northern Spain.
The company’s smoked yellowfin tuna is caught in the Pacific Northwest one rod at a time to minimize harm to marine species such as sea turtles, sharks, rays, dolphins and seabirds that may be unintentionally caught during fishing operations commercial.
“These are products you would want to serve to people who come to dinner,” Millstein said. “They’re just not something you’d want to mix up really quickly and binge on for a quick, cheap dose of protein.”
Simi Grewal, co-founder of San Francisco wine shop and bar DECANTsf, said her business has turned to canned fish to feed customers, in part because it doesn’t have a kitchen suitable for cooking.
“It’s super versatile, especially when we talk about pairing it with wine,” she said.
Canned fish in the store costs between US$8 for Ati Manel garfish, a needle-shaped fish offered in olive oil from Portugal, to US$36 for Conservas de Cambados “Sea Urchin Caviar” from the estuaries Galicians from Spain.
“People make a lot of assumptions about, you know, canned fish being a cheap product. And you know, when you come here, this is a highly curated program,” she said. “I spend hours and hours a month researching these people and trying to find out what the newest items they release are.”
Maria Finn, a Bay Area chef and author, said canned fish is appealing to everyone from foodies looking for the newest flavor to doomsayers stocking their bunkers. She takes Patagonia Provisions mussels on her annual mushroom hunt for a quick lunch and keeps cans of Wild Planet sardines in her bag in case a fire threatens her home.
“I think if anything can keep you alive for a long time, it will be a can of sardines packed in olive oil,” she joked.
Canned fish can last up to five years and does not require refrigeration, offering an environmentally friendly alternative to meat, which is the largest agricultural source of greenhouse gases and has a greater carbon footprint than any other protein source. The way humans produce and consume food contributes almost 30% to greenhouse gas emissions, according to scientists.
But canned fish has its drawbacks.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has warned people, especially pregnant women, to avoid eating too much fish, especially tuna or swordfish, which can contain large amounts of mercury. But many cans contain smaller fish, like sardines and anchovies, which have the added benefit of being low in mercury. Canned products, however, tend to have a higher salt content than fresh seafood, health officials say.
Greenpeace has expressed concern about overfishing to meet growing demand and warns buyers to do research to ensure products are sustainable. Longline is one of the most used methods for tuna fishing, which can capture other species such as turtles or dolphins, according to the environmental group.
California was once home to thriving sardine canneries in the coastal city of Monterey, which inspired John Steinbeck’s “Cannery Row.” The industry disappeared decades ago as the fish population plummeted. Canneries have long been replaced by hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops.
John Field, a fisheries biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service, doesn’t see large factories returning, but said the trend could help small local canneries and sustainable fisheries.
He admits he’s not so sure about ordering a can from a menu.
“Personally, when I go out for an expensive dinner, I probably prefer fresh fish over canned,” he said.