Sardines swirled in preserved lemons. Mackerel baked in curry sauce. Grilled squid bathed in ink. All are culinary delicacies long popular in Europe that are now making their mark on US menus.
The country’s canned seafood industry is moving far beyond tuna sandwiches, a pandemic-era trend that began with incarcerated Americans demanding more of their cupboard staples.
Since then, the US market has only grown, fueled by social media influencers touting the benefits of high-powered protein food in brightly colored metal containers. On the TinTok channel Tinned — Fishionado, Chris Wilson posts recipes for quick meals, including mixing leftover rice, soy sauce, avocado and runny egg with a can of smoked mussels from the Danish company Fangst.
Canned fish, as it’s called in Europe, is now a regular offering on the menus of wine bars from San Francisco to Houston to New York, where patrons scoop the contents straight from the can. There are even canned fish clubs that mimic wine clubs by sending their members monthly shipments of a variety of seafood packaged in various combinations of spices, oils and sauces. Videos about canned fish, from tastings to practical tips for cleaning the smell of canned fish, have generated more than 30 million views on TikTok.
Sales of the U.S. canned seafood industry have grown from $2.3 billion in 2018 to more than $2.7 billion so far this year, according to market research firm Circana.
Becca Milstein opened a Los Angeles-based canned fish business in 2020 after eating more than she could during the coronavirus lockdown.
“When we were all quarantined at home, preparing 100% of our food day after day, it was very laborious to create filling meals,” she said. “I just found myself eating so much canned fish, and at the same time, the options I found walking up and down the aisles at the local grocery store just weren’t great.”
Milstein lived in Spain in college and spent time in Portugal, both countries where canned fish has long been a part of people’s diets, so she knew there were better options.
“I was eating the same canned fish that my great-grandmother Rose in Brooklyn was eating in the 1930s,” she said. “I thought it was just crazy.”
Her company, Fishwife Tinned Seafood Co., is committed to offering high-quality, sustainably sourced seafood.
Milstein said she looked into canneries in Spain and Portugal and contacted fishermen on the West Coast, who put her in touch with canneries in Oregon and Washington.
“Our mission is really just to stimulate the canned fish industry and transform it and make it what we think it can be,” Milstein said, adding that that means offering much more “than tuna sandwiches.” .
Priced from $7.99 to $10.99 per box, Fishwife’s products are meant to be delicacies that can be served over rice bowls, on charcuterie boards or in salads, Milstein 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 simmered in salt, garlic salt, and brown sugar, then hand-packaged in boxes of Szechuan chili chips made in the Chinese city of Chengdu. Its 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 albacore tuna is caught in the Pacific Northwest one line at a time to minimize harm to marine species such as sea turtles, sharks, stingrays, dolphins and seabirds that may be caught unintentionally during commercial fishing operations.
“These are products that you would want to serve to people who are coming to dinner,” Milstein said. “They’re not just something you want to mix up really quickly and eat for a quick, cheap protein fix.”
Simi Grewal, co-founder of the DECANTsf wine shop and bar in San Francisco, said her business turned to canned fish to feed customers, in part because she didn’t have a kitchen suitable for cooking.
“It’s super versatile, especially when it comes to pairing with wine,” she said.
The store’s canned fish range from $8 for garman Ati Manel, a needle-like fish offered in olive oil from Portugal, to $36 for Conservas de Cambados sea urchin roe from Spain’s Galician estuaries.
“People make a lot of assumptions that canned fish is a cheap product. And you know, when you come here, it’s a very well-rounded program,” she said. “I spend hours and hours a month researching these people and trying to find what the latest items are that they have.”
Maria Finn, a Bay Area chef and author, said canned fish appeals to everyone from foodies looking for the latest flavor to those refueling their hoppers. She takes the clams from Patagonia Provisions on her annual mushroom hunt for a quick lunch and keeps packaged cans of Wild Planet sardines in her purse in case a wildfire threatens her home.
“I guess if anything could keep you alive for a long time, it would be a tin of sardines packed in olive oil,” she joked.
Canned fish can last up to five years and requires no refrigeration, offering an environmentally friendly alternative to meat, which is the largest agricultural source of greenhouse gases and has a larger carbon footprint than any other protein source. The way people produce and consume food contributes nearly 30% to greenhouse gas emissions, according to scientists.
But canned fish is not without its drawbacks.
The US Food and Drug Administration has warned people, especially pregnant women, to avoid eating too much fish, especially tuna or swordfish, which may contain high amounts of mercury. But many cans contain smaller fish like sardines and anchovies, which have the added benefit of being low in mercury. However, canned products have a higher salt content than fresh seafood, health officials say.
Greenpeace has expressed concern about overfishing to meet growing demand and is warning buyers to do their research to make sure products are sustainable. Longline fishing is one of the most commonly used methods of fishing for tuna, which can catch other species such as turtles or dolphins, according to the environmental group.
California was once home to thriving sardine canneries in the coastal town of Monterey, which inspired John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. The industry disappeared decades ago as the fish population plummeted. The canneries have long since been replaced by hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops.
John Field, a research fisheries biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service, doesn’t see the big factories coming back, but said the trend could help small local canneries and sustainable fisheries.
He admits he thought he wasn’t so sure about ordering canned food off the menu.
“Personally, when I go out to an expensive dinner, I’d probably prefer fresh fish to canned fish,” he said.
Watson reported from San Diego.