Sharks, tunas and sturgeon may be some of the Aquarium’s favorite fishes, but for many, the humble sardine holds a special fascination. The Monterey Bay Aquarium is home to about 20,000 of these three-inch fish, spread across three exhibits, including the mesmerizing overhead “roundabout” in the Outer Bay wing (currently being renovated and will re-open July 2011).
Ever wonder where they all come from?
The Aquarium was built on the site of an old sardine cannery, and in a sense, we’re still very much in the sardine business. Collecting that many sardines involves a combination of enduring relationships with local fishermen, some high-tech equipment, a few Rube Goldberg devices and more than a little sweat. It all comes together to bring thousands of sardines into the Aquarium, three to four times per year, to keep our exhibits topped up with tiny fish.
Sardines by the Truckload
Our sardine story starts with a road trip. Piloting the Aquarium’s beautiful new tanker truck, Associate Curator of Collecting Joe Welsh travels to one of three California coast locations: Santa Cruz, Morro Bay or Oxnard. In each town, he’s developed relationships with local boatmen who specialize in baitfish such as sardines.
“We depend on these fishermen,” says Joe. “They like us, and they look for what we want.” (Sardines are also abundant and on the Seafood Watch “Super Green” list: good for you, and good for the oceans.) The boats use large “lampara” nets to gather the fish. From there, the sardines are transported to port and held in “receivers”—floating nets in the harbor—to ensure the fish are healthy and ready for transport.
Then the manual labor begins—Joe and other Aquarium staff use a good old-fashioned bucket brigade to load the fish into the truck. Since a typical load is 6,000, and one bucket equals 60-100 fish, this can mean upwards of 100 bucketloads—a satisfying upper body workout by any standard.
Once comfortably ensconced in the tanker truck, the sardines are supplied with a constant flow of diffused oxygen to ensure their well being. It’s a time-tested procedure, and Joe says that almost no fish are lost during the trip or the eventual transport into our exhibits.
Our Sardines Take a Historic Stroll Down Cannery Row
Once at the Aquarium, gravity is Joe’s friend. He’s constructed a serpentine arrangement of plastic pipes that whoosh the fish from the truck into holding tanks. Once it’s all set up, he simply opens a large valve and the sardines take an exciting ride, eventually gushing out the end of the pipe and into the tank, where they immediately begin circulating in a large school, in their special sardine fashion.
Husbandry staff keeps the fish in quarantine holding tanks for one week to ensure they’re healthy, feeding and ready to go on exhibit. Then, another bucket brigade is used to move the fish into wheeled carts, whereupon they are walked down Cannery Row, up the elevator and lowered into their respective tanks using a hoist or forklift.
That’s a Lot of Fish
There are about 1,500 sardines in the Kelp Forest, 14,000 in the Outer Bay exhibit and another 3,000-4,000 in the overhead “roundabout” at the entrance to the Outer Bay. All told, this makes them the most populous fish in the Aquarium.
The whole ritual is repeated about four times a year. Over time some are lost to old age (they live to be three years maximum), while others are lost to predation from tuna, sharks, barracuda and even the occasional bird (the top of the Kelp Forest is exposed)—just as they would be in the wild.
“Few other institutions in the country display baitfish like we do,” says Joe.
It seems only fitting, since few other institutions can claim such a historical connection to this fascinating fish.