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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Americans love tuna, salmon and shrimp - the big three of the seafood industry - but their popularity could be their undoing. Many are concerned about overfishing. So consumers are being urged to try alternatives like tilapia or barramundi or sardines.

In Monterey, California, those fishies that you may remember in a tin in your grandmother's pantry, are making a culinary comeback. David Gorn reports.

DAVID GORN: Mark Shelley is looking out over the water of Monterey Bay, his beat-up cowboy hat back on his head. Shelley's part of a sardine-loving group called The Sardinistas. They're kind of green foodies.

Mr. MARK SHELLEY (The Sardinistas): My compadres in the Sardinista clan here, we believe that the ocean needs a lot of help.

GORN: One way to help is to make you eat less tuna and more sardines.

Mr. SHELLEY: Sardines kind of have a bad reputation, don't they? One of the things I think is going to happen, I'm hoping is going to happen, is that there's going to be a cool factor associated with eating sardines, as opposed to an ick factor.

GORN: Sardines are cool, he says, because they are packed with protein and vitamin D and lots of omega-3 fatty acids. And says Shelley…

Mr. SHELLEY: Since they're low on the food chain, they don't concentrate the organic toxins and heavy metals, like mercury, as the higher food-chain fish do.

GORN: Sardines used to be big business here in Monterey. They gave birth to Cannery Row. But the overfished sardine industry crashed in the mid '50s. Now, half-century later, the Pacific sardine population has recovered.

So, this loose-knit band of Sardinistas are seizing the opportunity and planning to market a replacement for cans of tuna fish with sardine meat, minus the bones and the head. So, eventually you can whip up a sardine fish sandwich or a sardine salad. And the group is also working to get local chefs to put fresh sardines on the menu.

Mr. DOMENIC MERCURIO (Owner, Cafe Fina): And then when we do salt, pepper and a little bit of cumin and then cook them over the mesquite barbeque.

GORN: Restaurant owner Domenic Mercurio is back in the kitchen of Cafe Fina on Monterey's Cannery Row. He says he grew up eating fresh sardines. He grills up a few now and takes a plate of them out front where the tourists are passing by.

Mr. MERCURIO: Try those sardines.

Unidentified Woman #1: No, no, no.

GORN: This is the tricky part, Mercurio says — getting people on the wharf to try one.

Mr. MERCURIO: You want to try them?

Ms. ELIZA DEVINE (Tourist): Try it.

Unidentified Man: No.

Ms. DEVINE: No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GORN: He manages to get Eliza Devine and Teresa Margiatta, visiting from Las Vegas, to stop and sample. Devine looks like she'd rather eat a snail.

Ms. DEVINE: I've had them out of a can as a child. Okay. It's not that…no.

Mr. MERCURIO: You want a paper napkin?

Ms. DEVINE: Mm, they're good. They're like little fish. Well, I thought they more like, yeah, they're good. I thought they were going to taste…

Ms. TERESA MARGIATTA : Saltier.

Ms. DEVINE: Saltier, and more, like, slimier, less like a whole piece of fish.

GORN: Mercurio says once people try them, they're hooked. And now is one of the few times you can get fresh sardines. The quota restrictions on sardines are now tight, so the window for fresh sardines will only last another week or so.

Right now the dock is bustling at Moss Landing, just north of Monterey. There's about 40 tons of sardines here in this load, sucked out of the boat hold by a giant vacuum and then spit out into a big plastic container on the dock…

(Soundbite of ice)

GORN: …and then packed over with ice.

About 90 percent of these sardines are headed to Australia — ironically, to be used as fish meal at the tuna farms there.

For NPR News, I'm David Gorn.

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