Fishes are worth more than the sticker price: Sardines in British Columbia

by André Cisneros-Montemayor

Forage fish (sardines, squids, and other fast-growing species) are the backbone of pelagic marine ecosystem, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at their price in the store. One good example is the Pacific sardine (Sardinops sagax), which was the mainstay of fisheries from British Columbia to Baja California until the population collapsed in the 1950s (research suggests this was most likely due to cyclical environmental shifts worsened by intensive fishing). Sardines are often among the cheapest fishes at the market, yet we know that they hugely important diet for many valuable marine fishes, marine mammals, and birds. Accounting for the difference between their real and perceived economic value can result in wildly different policy choices. Current ocean climate trends suggest that sardines will again become abundant in Canadian waters, so it’s important to anticipate this with solid management strategies.

Under a grant provided by the Sustainable Fisheries Fund (SFF), and matching funds from industry, the Sardine Conservation Society (SCS), with the cooperation of the Canadian Pacific Sardine Association (CPSA), initiated a Sardine Ecosystem Project. The project examines the role of sardine in the Canadian region of the California Current ecosystem and developed an ecosystem model (Ecopath with Ecosim platform) that can be used to explore ecosystem (particularly sardine abundance and distribution) changes under various climate and fishing scenarios.

The initial model, developed by FERU members, was improved through extensive and open discussions with experts including local fishermen, government and university scientists. After construction and extensive review, the Ecopath model for the study area included 33 species groups and six fishing fleets. As expected, once one accounts for the ecological value of sardine and other forage fishes, economic values are much greater than markets would suggest. It is clear that the economic contribution of sardine for fisheries and for supporting values (so, providing food for other fishes) should be taken into account when designing management plans.

A representation of the West Coast of Vancouver Island pelagic marine ecosystem.

A representation of the West Coast of Vancouver Island pelagic marine ecosystem.

The ‘ecosystem approach’ is increasingly important part of marine resource management and plays a particularly strong role in fisheries policy. Though many challenges remain, the results of this study help show that it is now possible to provide practical estimates of the economic contribution of fishes beyond their market price. The models we developed use as precise data and parameters as possible, so that our results, if conceptual in nature, endeavor to reflect real values. In addition, a main focus was on developing new tools that can be useful both for future academic research and fisheries policy.

The models are complete and will be uploaded to the UBC EwE site ( as soon as possible for public access and use. Until that time, they are freely available upon request by email (