Sardines swirling in preserved lemons. Mackerel basking in curry sauce. Chargrilled squid bathing in ink. All are culinary delicacies long popular in Europe that are now making their mark on U.S. menus.
The country’s canned seafood industry is moving well beyond tuna sandwiches, a pandemic-era trend that began with Americans in lockdown demanding more of their cupboard staples.
Since then, the U.S. market has only expanded, fueled by social media influencers touting the benefits of the high-powered protein food in brightly colored metal containers. On the TikTok channel Tinned — Fishionado, Kris Wilson posts recipes for quick meals, including one mixing leftover rice, soy sauce, avocado and a runny egg with a tin of smoked mussels from the Danish company Fangst.
Tinned fish, as it’s called in Europe, is now a regular offering on menus at wine bars from San Francisco to Houston to New York, where patrons scoop the contents straight out of the can. There are even tinned fish clubs that mimic wine clubs by sending members monthly shipments of various seafood packed in various combinations of spices, oils and sauces. Videos on tinned fish, from tastings to how-to tips on cleaning the fishy smell from cans, have generated more than 30 million views on TikTok.
U.S. canned seafood industry sales 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 Millstein opened a Los Angeles-based tinned fish business in 2020 after eating more of it during coronavirus lockdowns.
“When we were all quarantining at home, preparing 100% of our meals day in and day out, it was very time consuming to create satiating meals,” she said. “I just found myself eating so much canned fish, and at the same time, the options that I found when strolling up and down the aisles of my local grocery store just were not great.”
Millstein lived in Spain in college and spent time in Portugal, both countries where tinned fish has long been a part of people’s diets, so she knew there were better options to be had.
“I was eating the same canned fish that my great grandmother Rose in Brooklyn was eating in the 1930s,” she said. “I thought that was just insane.”
Her company, Fishwife Tinned Seafood Co., set out to offer high-quality, sustainably sourced seafood.
Millstein said she sought out canneries in Spain and Portugal and contacted fishers along the West Coast who connected her to canneries in Oregon and Washington.
“Our mission is really to just galvanize the canned fish industry and transform and make it what we think it can be,” Millstein said, adding that means offering much more “than tuna fish sandwiches.”
Priced from $7.99 to $10.99 per tin, Fishwife products are meant to be delicacies that can be served over rice bowls, on charcuterie boards or in salads, Millstein said. She added that her company’s sales grew by 250% from 2021 to 2022, and are on track to jump about 150% this year, though she declined to release dollar figures.
To that end, Fishwife’s products include smoked salmon brined in salt, garlic salt and brown sugar then hand-packed into cans with Sichuan chile crisps crafted 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, with one fishing pole at a time to minimize harm to marine species such as sea turtles, sharks, rays, dolphins and seabirds that can be caught unintentionally during commercial fishing operations.
“These are products that you would want to serve to people who are coming over for dinner,” Millstein said. “They’re not just something that you would want to maybe like mash up really quickly and feed yourself for a quick, cheap protein fix.”
Simi Grewal, a co-founder of the San Francisco wine shop and bar DECANTsf, said her business turned to tinned fish to feed customers partly because it doesn’t have a kitchen suitable for cooking.
“It’s super versatile, especially when we’re talking about pairing with wine,” she said.
Tinned fish at the shop runs anywhere from $8 for Ati Manel garfish, a needle-like fish offred in olive oil from Portugal, to $36 for Conservas de Cambados ‘Sea Urchin Caviar’ from Spain’s Galician estuaries.
“People make a lot of assumptions about, you know, tinned fish being a cheap product. And you know, when you come here, this is a very highly curated program,” she said. “I spend hours and hours a month researching these folks and trying to find what are the newest items that they have out.”
Maria Finn, a chef and author in the Bay Area, said tinned fish is attracting everyone from foodies in search of the newest taste to doomsdayers stocking their bunkers. She takes the mussels from Patagonia Provisions on her annual mushroom hunts for a quick lunch and keeps packed cans of Wild Planet sardines in her bag in case wildfire threatens her home.
“I figure if anything can keep you alive for a long time, it’s going to be a tin of sardines packed in olive oil,” she joked.
Tinned 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 gasses and has a bigger carbon footprint than any other protein source. The way humans produce and consume food contributes nearly 30% to greenhouse gas emissions, according to scientists.
But tinned fish is not without its drawbacks.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has cautioned people, especially pregnant women, to avoid eating too much fish, especially tuna or swordfish that may contain high amounts of mercury. But many tins contain smaller fish like sardines and anchovies that have the added benefit of being low in mercury. The canned products, however, tend to have a higher salt content than fresh seafood, health officials say.
Greenpeace has expressed concerns about overfishing to meet the growing demand and cautions buyers to do their research to make sure the products are sustainable. Longlining is one of the most commonly used methods for fishing tuna, which can snare other species like turtles or dolphins, according to the environmental group.
California was once home to thriving sardine canning factories 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 been replaced with hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops.
John Field, a research fishery biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service, doesn’t see large factories ever coming back, but he said the trend could help small local canneries and sustainable fishing.
He admits thought that he’s not so sure about ordering a tin off a menu.
“Personally, when I go out to an expensive dinner, I probably would prefer to have fresh fish than from a can,” he said.