Popular Science Monthly/Volume 59/October 1901/The French Sardine Industry
|THE FRENCH SARDINE INDUSTRY.|
U. S. COMMISSION OF FISH AND FISHERIES.
AMONG the foreign fishery industries on which Americans are dependent for a part of their food supply, few exceed in interest or importance the sardine industry of France. The value of the French sardines imported into the United States is about one million dollars annually, and the wholesome, palatable and convenient canned sardine is consumed in nearly every community. The accompanying notes on the sardine and the industries to which it gives rise are extracted from an article in the 'Bulletin' of the United States Fish Commission for 1901, based on the writer's personal observations in Brittany, the principal center of the sardine fishery.
The sardine is the leading fishery product taken in the waters of France. From official statistics it appears that in 1898 the sardine fishery gave employment to 31,871 fishermen; the number of boats used was 8,164, valued at 5,934,633 francs; the apparatus employed was worth 7,030,945 francs; the quantity of sardines taken was 53,924,275 kilograms (or 118,633,400 pounds); and the selling price of the fresh fish was 9,204,988 francs (or about $1,840,997).
There exists considerable uncertainty among the fishing interests and the general public in America and Europe regarding the sardine of the Bay of Biscay and the Mediterranean Sea. Some persons have believed that the sardine canned in France is a distinct species, while others have held that the French sardine, like the sardine of New England, is simply the young of some herring-like fish. The term sardine is a general one, applied to various clupeoid fishes, mostly of small size, in different parts of the world, and can not be restricted to any particular fish. Thus, there are the Spanish sardine of the West Indies and Florida; the California sardine, found along the entire west coast of the United States; the Chile sardine; the oil sardine of India; and the sardines of Japan and New Zealand. But the sardine par excellence is the French sardine, called also celeren, celan, royan, galice and cradeau on various parts of the French coast. The name sardine has reference to the island of Sardinia, in the Mediterranean, about whose shores the fish is abundant.
As early as 1553, Pierre Belon, a French naturalist, asserted that the sardine is the young of the pilchard; and this is the view now held by nearly all authorities. The pilchard, as is well known, is one of the most important fishes of the southern coast of England, being especially abundant in Cornwall. Young pilchards or 'sardines' are found on the Cornish coast, but arc apparently not so numerous as in France and are in little demand, as canning is very limited in extent; on the other hand, large sardines or pilchards are caught on the French coast, but are much less abundant and less important than the small fish.
In allusion to the small sardine being caught almost wholly by means of bait consisting of fish roe (rogue), the French call it sardine de rogue, in contradistinction to the large fish which is taken without bait by-means of drift nets, and hence called sardine de derive. Modern French writers on the sardine fishery seem averse to acknowledging the specific identity of the sardine and the pilchard; some even fail to explain or suggest the relation between the large and small fishes of the west coast of France.
The pilchard is a well-marked species, easily distinguished by prominent radiating lines on the operculum and by large scales, as well as by other features. The usual length is eight or nine inches; the length of the largest recorded specimen was fourteen inches (taken in Cornwall). The sardine of the French coast is a handsome little fish, whose beauty is not entirely lost in canning. In the water the back is of a greenish color, but out of the water the upper parts are rich dark bluish, contrasting strongly with the silver and white of the sides and abdomen. The scales are very easily detached, but their loss does not detract seriously from the appearance of the fish, when either fresh or canned, as the skin is rather thick and has a brilliant uniform silvery color.
The range of the sardine extends from Sweden to the Madeira Islands. The southern coast of England, the Atlantic coast of France, and the Mediterranean Sea are the chief centers of abundance.
On the coast of Brittany the sardine de rogue is found about nine months of the year, being absent from the inshore waters most of the winter. When the fishing season opens, the fish are reported first at Arcachon and other southern points on the west coast, and gradually reach the districts toward the north. During the winter, however, the large fish—some a foot in length—are observed at various places on the coast.
The immature sardines frequent the coast waters throughout the summer and remain in Brittany until late in fall. Some years, if the season is mild, they are caught until the first or second week in December, but a storm coming any time in November is likely to drive them away and terminate fishing for the season. In 1900 sardine fishing at Concarneau was ended November 5—the same date as in 1899—by a southwest storm, which swept away all the sardines in the bay.
The spawning time on the coasts of England and France is from June to October. Spawning takes place at a considerable distance from the land, and ripe or spawning fish are seldom caught, as fishing is done mostly in the inshore waters. The small fish used for canning purposes on the French coast are never found with ripe eggs or milt, and are now known to be immature fish hatched in the summer and fall of the previous year. The eggs are buoyant, and the average number extruded is reported as 60,000. In the Mediterranean the sardine apparently belongs to a different race, which is smaller than the oceanic form and reaches maturity when under 7 inches in length.
When sardines first arrive they are poor and unsuitable for canning; but as the season advances they improve in quality, and are fatter in September than in June and in December than in September. Their food consists mainly of copepods and other small Crustacea. Small fish eggs are also a favorite food. The fondness of the sardine for such eggs plays an important part in the fishery.
The sardines go in schools and swim at or near the surface. As many as 100,000 fish have been taken in one net from one school, but the usual catch is much less. They are preyed upon by cetaceans and by many fish—the mackerel, the haddock and the dolphin being especially destructive on the French coast.
Like other free-swimming oceanic fish, the sardine varies in abundance from year to year; but there is no evidence that the fishing is effecting any permanent reduction of the supply. During the years 1887 to 1890 there was an alarming scarcity of sardines on the French coast, and the outlook for the industry was serious, but after four years the fish returned in their former numbers. The history of the sardine fishery shows what extensive operations may be supported annually when the natural conditions permit the fish to spawn unmolested, the spawning grounds in this case being many miles offshore.
Several American fishes resemble the pilchard, among them the sea herring and the California sardine. The former is extensively canned on the coast of Maine, and often placed on the market as 'genuine French sardines in pure olive oil'; the latter is canned to a limited extent in southern California.
The sardine fishery of France dates back many years, and even in the early part of the eighteenth century was an important industry, but it has become much more extensive since the introduction of canning. The building of railroads has also benefited the fishery by providing means of shipping to the inland points that part of the catch which can not be disposed of locally.
The province of Brittany supports by far the most productive fisheries and is the center of the canning industry. Here in 1898 were 21,684 fishermen, with 4,611 boats, and here were caught 49,478,365 kilograms of sardines, selling at 7,572,347 francs. The leading center is Douarnenez, which is credited with 4,200 fisherman, 710 boats, and over 18,000,000 kilograms of sardines, valued at 2,442,000 francs. Next in importance is Concarneau, with 2,695 fisherman, 490 boats, and 9,163,000 kilograms of sardines, worth 1,719,890 francs. Other important places in Brittany are Audierne, Quimper, Port Louis, Etel, Quiberon, La Turballe and Le Croisic. Outside of Brittany the fishery is most extensive at Sables-d'Olonne, St. Gilles-sur-Vie and Arcachon. On the Mediterranean coast of France sardines are caught at numerous places and by many fisherman, but only in relatively small quantities. The fisheries here in 1898 gave employment to 7,794 men, using 2,861 boats, the catch being 2,129,519 kilograms, valued at 987,738 francs.
Formerly in parts of Brittany nets were used to surround the schools and then stones were thrown in to frighten the fish into the meshes. In this way large catches were often made and the market was glutted; but the method came into disrepute and is no longer followed. Fishing is now carried on exclusively with gill nets, made of very fine cotton twine; they are 45 yards long and 500 meshes deep, and are kept in position in the water by numerous cork floats and a few stone sinkers. The mesh is necessarily very small, as it is intended to gill the tiny sardines. The nets vary in fineness to suit the different runs of sardines, and are of about three standard sizes. The largest mesh is equal, in America, to 0.66 inch, bar measure, while the smallest size equals 0.40 inch. The complement of each boat is 10 nets, representing the three sizes of mesh.
The nets are dyed a bright greenish blue, and when suspended from the masts to dry add to the picturesqueness of the fishing boats and the wharf scenes. The dyeing is for the twofold purpose of preserving the nets and rendering them less conspicuous when in the water.
In the fishery for sardines for canning, bait is almost as important as the boats and nets. In no other net fishery in the world is bait so extensively employed and so essential to the success of the industry. The scarcity of bait is always a serious matter in the fishing districts, curtailing the catch, reducing the income of the fisherman, and often producing distress among the fisherfolk. It is therefore remarkable that for this indispensable article the French should be absolutely dependent on other countries and that the success of the fishery for sardines should be intimately related to the fisheries for other species in distant lands.
In the early days of the sardine fishery, especially prior to the establishment of canneries, small shrimp-like animals, about half an inch in length, were much used as bait. The gathering of this kind of bait was an occupation of the women, who sought the schools in the bays and coves, catching them in large canvas bag-nets. They frequently made their best catches in water up to their necks, when the weather was bad and the water along the shores was thick. The taking of these little creatures appears to have been prohibited many years ago, because of the supposed destruction of the eggs at the time of catching the shrimps. Although the interdiction is now removed, little effort is made to secure this form of bait.
The bait now in general use is the salted eggs of the cod, though the eggs of hake, haddock, pollock, cusk, herring, mackerel and many other fishes are also employed. Cod eggs are not known to possess any properties which make them superior to the eggs of several other species, but owe their prominence to the abundance of cod in regions on which the sardine fishermen depend for their bait supply. The annual consumption of roe in France at present is 40,000 to 45,000 barrels, for which the fishermen pay about $300,000. It is reported that in favor able seasons as many as 25,000 barrels of roe have been expended in Concarneau alone.
For at least two centuries cod roe has been imported from Norway, which country has always furnished the greater part of the sardine bait. Other countries which have contributed supplies are Holland, Newfoundland and the United States. From time to time the French Government has encouraged its own cod fishermen (at St. Pierre and Miquelon; on the Grand Banks; in the waters of Iceland, and in the North Sea) to preserve the roes of cod and other fish, and in 1816 offered a bounty of $4.00 a barrel for roe made from fish caught by them; but this and other inducements have had little effect on the supply from native sources.
The price of roe has varied greatly from year to year. In the early part of the eighteenth century, bait was bought for 50 cents to $1.00 a barrel, and throughout that century prices were comparatively low. In the second decade of the last century prices reached their highest point; they were apparently never less than $32.00, and ranged from that to $60.00 per barrel. By 1822 the price had fallen as low as 85.00 or $6.00, and since then has seldom been as high as $25.00 or $26.00, averaging $12.00 or $15.00 The average price for Norwegian roe recently has been about $7.00 per barrel. In 1900, owing to the failure of the Norwegian cod fishery and the resulting scarcity of roe, the price for Norwegian bait rose to $24.00 per barrel. The price of American and Newfoundland roe is but little more than half that of Norwegian. In 1900 the best American roe was selling at $8.60 a barrel and in the previous year at only $4.60.
The sardine fishermen use peanut meal or flour to mix with the roe, it being much cheaper. Floating lightly and being quite conspicuous, it attracts the attention of the sardines, which readily devour it.
In the Mediterranean sardines are caught during every month of the year. On the west coast, however, the fishing season opens in February and continues to November, rarely extending into December. Fishing in the canning districts is continued as late as practicable, usually as long as the fish remain in abundance, as their condition at that time is good.
The sardine fishery is emphatically a shore fishery, and most of it is done within a very short distance of the home ports. This permits the use of smaller and less expensive boats than would otherwise be required, and insures the landing of the fish a short time after capture. The early fishing for the sardines de derive is mostly within 1 or 2 miles of the shore and rarely beyond 5 or 6 miles. In the summer and fall fishing with bait, the boats may go 10 miles to sea, but the largest part of the catch is taken within 3 or 4 miles of shore, and a very considerable proportion close inshore in the bays.
The fishing in the early part of the season—that is, in March, April and May—is done mostly with old nets and is conducted only at night. While the boats are lying near by and the men sleeping, the nets are allowed to drift. No bait is used. The fish thus caught are not fat and are not used for canning, but are salted or sold for immediate consumption. The regular fishing is carried on only by day. The boats start for the fishing-grounds early in the morning (2 to 4 o'clock), so as to be there when day breaks. They may also have to leave earlier if the tide would otherwise beach them. The best fishing is in the early morning, and the boats are often back to port by 9 or 10 o'clock with full fares.
When a boat arrives on the fishing-grounds, a net is shot and slowly towed by means of a short line attached to the cork line and fastened in the stem of the boat. In summer fishing, when sardines are abundant, the fishermen often let one net go adrift when it is full of fish, trusting to pick it up later, and put out another net. Indeed, a boat may have fish in three nets at one time, though this is rarely the case.Bait is always used in the day fishing, being necessary in order to attract the fish to the vicinity of the boats and into the nets. The casting of the bait, on the proper use of which a great deal of the success of fishing depends, is always done by the master or 'patron,' who stands in the stern of the boat on a little platform and uses the flour and roe
as required. When the fish have come toward the surface and are on one side or the other of the net, his object is to cast the bait in such a way that they will rush against the net and become gilled.
Considerable skill and experience are of course necessary in managing the net and in having it hang properly in the water and not become folded or wavy owing to currents or tide. Unless the net is straight or gently curved, the fish will see and avoid it. When a net contains fish and is ready for hauling, it is taken in the boat and the fish are removed from the meshes by gently shaking the net.
The sardines are often found in a compact body, and the boats will be concentrated in a comparatively small area, at times so close together that the operation of the net would seem almost impossible and the chance of catching fish very improbable. The entire fleet of a given
port—consisting of several hundred boats—may be at work on one school and fishing literally en masse instead of individually.
No ice or other preservative is used on the fish, which are landed a short time after gilling. The fish reach port in good condition, and are often at the canneries within one or two hours after capture. Should the failure or unfavorable direction of the wind threaten to delay the arrival of the boats, and hence impair the quality of the fish, the crews row leisurely back to the port.
Soon after reaching port the nets are spread for drying, being hauled to the top of the masts and suspended between them for this purpose. When all the fleet has arrived and the nets are spread, the view of the maze of blue nets, sails and masts is most interesting and unique.
When the fishing boats begin to arrive, the wharves, which have practically been deserted, assume a very busy and animated appearance, and as the arrivals increase in number the bustle among the different classes of people becomes intense, although good nature and good order prevail. The foreign visitor here witnesses some exceedingly interesting and picturesque fishing scenes—thousands of fishermen in their coarse blouses and flat cloth caps, with trousers rolled up and their feet bare or in the huge wooden shoes of the country, unloading their fish and carrying them to the canneries; hundreds of women and girls in short dark skirts, white caps and collars, and wooden shoes, negotiating for sardines, receiving the fish from the fishermen, and dispatching them to the canneries; sardine boats, either rowed or sailed, entering the harbor in groups or singly and coming up to the already congested docks; fish wagons going to and from the factories, and a mixed crowd of merchants, sight-seers, artists and idlers. The commingled noise of waves, boats, wagons and tongues is underlain by the incessant rattle of wooden shoes on the stony pavements.
The prices received by the fishermen are regulated by the factory operators, and depend on the supply, the size and quality of the fish, the weather and other considerations. The fish of each boat are virtually sold at auction, only there is as a rule no counter bidding, the prices offered by one or two factories being adopted by the others and accepted by the fishermen. If a fisherman is not satisfied with the price offered by one factory, he is at liberty to seek a higher price elsewhere. Some boats always sell their catch to the same factory, and all of them, to a greater or less extent, deal with particular factories. The maximum price which factory operators can profitably pay for sardines is $5.00 per 1,000 fish. The dealers in fresh sardines can pay as much as $7.00 per 1,000. At times the demand for sardines to be sold fresh (au vert) tends to keep up the prices; but this use is limited and does not interfere greatly with the cannery demands.
Women usually represent the factories as purchasing agents. They are given considerable discretion by their employers and are very sharp in making bargains. Payments are not made in money, but in tokens or tickets which are redeemed weekly. As the fishermen deliver their fish, two baskets full at a time, to the agents of the canneries, they receive a metal tag or token with the name of the buyer on it. When all the fish are landed the metal pieces are counted and surrendered, and a claim check is issued in their place. At the end of each week the master or the owner of the boat (sometimes the same person) goes to the factory, receives the money due, and apportions the earnings of the crew.
The division of the proceeds of fishing is rather complicated. The boat, nets, equipment and bait usually belong to a nonfisherman (who may own a number of boats). The men of the crew furnish their own food, fuel and clothing. The owner is entitled to half the sales of fish, and 'the remainder goes to the crew in the following proportions: There being 6 men in the crew, 4 of them get equal parts, the captain receives the share of one man plus 10 per cent, and the cook half a share. Dividing the proceeds into 23 parts, the boat owner is entitled to 11 parts, 4 members of the crew to 8 parts, the master to 2 parts and the cook to 1 part; the share of the master being increased by 10 per cent, of 2 parts and that of each member of the crew diminished by 21 per cent.
From the time the men begin to fish until the close of the season, they pay to the government 1.10 francs per month, in consideration of which they are pensioned on attaining the age of 50, provided they have served 300 months on sea duty (either in fishing or in any other maritime occupation). They also pay 1.50 francs per month as premium on an insurance fund which the government allows for injury due to the vicissitudes of sea life. In case of death, the family of the fisherman receives an annual pension depending on the size of the family and on age and length of sea service of the deceased, the minimum sum being 300 francs; naval service increases the pension.
The average stock per boat in a given season varies greatly on different parts of the French coast, depending on various local causes besides the abundance of fish, such as weather, bait supply, local demand, shipping facilities, energy with which fishing is prosecuted and other evident factors. The boats fishing out of Brittany ports have a larger average yield than those of other ports of the west coast; and those in the Mediterranean have by far the smallest stocks. Thus, in 1898, the average catch per boat was about 10,700 kilograms of sardines in Brittany, 3,300 kilograms in the southern part of the Bay of Biscay and only 745 kilograms in the Mediterranean.
The construction of the first sardine canning establishment dates from about 1845, since which time the growth of the business has been almost uninterrupted. The factories gave to the sardine fishery a great impetus, and to-day are the chief supporters of the very extensive fishing operations in the Bay of Biscay. They employ many thousand persons, at what are considered good wages, and in some of the fishing towns give work to practically all able-bodied persons who are not engaged in fishing. In Concarneau, a town of 10,000 people, fully 3,000 men, women and children are directly connected with the sardine canning business, besides the fishermen. Most of the work in connection with the canning of sardines is done by women and girls, a few men being employed for special duties for which women are not adapted. The factories are generally large stone structures surrounded by a stone wall and inclosing a courtyard. Some are able to utilize upward of a quarter of a million of fish daily. The yearly output of individual establishments is from 300,000 to 4,000,000 or 5,000,000 boxes. No complete statistics for the canning industry are available, but over 100 factories are operated and not less than 15,000 persons are employed therein. Concarneau and Douarnenez have more factories than any other localities, the number operated in 1900 being 29 and 25, respectively. A large number of the canning establishments are owned or leased by companies having headquarters at Bordeaux and Nantes.
The various processes to which the sardines are subjected in the course of canning may now briefly be noticed. As soon as the fish reach the factories, their heads and viscera are removed by women, who perform their work with great rapidity. The fish are then sorted by size into large tubs of strong brine, where they remain for about an hour. They are then placed in small wicker baskets and washed in either fresh or salt water for a few seconds, to remove loose scales, dirt and undissolved salt.
Drying, the next step, is done preferably in the open air, and a large part of the product is so treated. For open-air drying the fish are arranged by hand, one by one, in wire baskets or trays, holding about 150 fish of medium size, placed on wooden frames or flakes. The distinctive feature of the trays is their division into about 7 V-shaped crosswise compartments, in which the sardines are placed in regular rows, with their tails upward, so as to promote the escape of water from the abdominal cavity. The sardines remain out for a variable time, depending on their size, the state of the atmosphere, etc. The usual time in favorable weather is one hour. In damp, foggy or rainy weather the sardines must be dried indoors by artificial heat, and drying ensues much sooner than in the open air. Some factories, not being provided with driers, are unable to operate in such weather. In most of the factories, especially those more recently constructed, artificial heat is supplied in a special drying chamber by means of steam pipes.From the drying flakes the fish are taken in the same wire baskets to the cooking room and immersed in boiling oil, in open vats of various sizes and construction. As the fish are quite dry, much of the oil is taken up in cooking and has to be replaced from time to time by fresh oil. The immersion in oil usually lasts about two minutes, but varies with the size of the fish and is best gauged by experience. The baskets are first removed to a table or platform with an inclined metal top, where the surplus oil is allowed to drain from the fish, and then taken to the packing room. There the sardines are carefully placed in tin cans. After the cans are sealed, they are immersed in boiling water for several hours; this accomplishes a fourfold purpose: (1) The
cooking of the fish is completed; (2) the bones are softened; (3) the bacteria in the oil and fish are killed; (4) the presence of leaks in the cans is disclosed. After cooling, the cans are placed in dry sawdust and stirred from time to time; this absorbs the oil and moisture on the surface, and renders the cans, clean and ready for packing.
The sardine manufacturers ostensibly employ only two kinds of oil in their canning operations—olive oil and arachide or peanut oil. Native olive oil is used with the best quality of sardines. Fish packed in it will remain in good condition ten years or longer, and are reported to be better the second year after packing than earlier. Arachide oil i? extensively employed. It is made in Bordeaux, Fecamp and Marseilles from peanuts imported from India, Senegal and other parts of Africa, and other countries. It comes in three grades, the best quality costing less than one-third as much as the best olive oil. Peanut oil is largely used to meet the American demand for a low-priced sardine. Most of the cheaper French sardines exported to America are packed in peanut oil, which is practically tasteless. While it is reported that the manufacturers knowingly handle only the oils named, it is understood that cottonseed oil, being tasteless and cheap, is used by the French oil-dealers for adulterating both olive and peanut oils. A canner may fry his sardines in peanut oil and fill the cans with olive oil, or vice versa; or one oil, with or without the admixture of cottonseed oil, may be used throughout the process.
There are various other ingredients with which or in which the sardines are packed to give them flavor or piquancy. Some of the very best goods are prepared with melted butter instead of oil; these are mostly for special French trade. Tomato sauce, pickles and truffles are also used. With most of the oil sardines a small quantity of spices is added in order to impart a flavor. The usual ingredients for each can are 1 or 2 cloves, quarter or half of a laurel leaf, and a small piece of thyme; these are put in the can before the fish, so that they will be on top when the can is opened. The fresh leaves of tarragon are sometimes used.
Americans need hardly be told that French sardines, when of the best quality, have a flavor and richness which make them preferable to the sardines prepared on the Atlantic coast of the United States from the young of the sea herring. French sardines of average grade, even when canned in peanut and cottonseed oil, are superior in palatability to the great bulk of the American output; while the cheaper grades of French sardines—which unfortunately find a ready market in the United States—are certainly not preferable to much of the native pack.
The conditions which underlie the general superiority of the French canned sardines, and the steps which may be followed in America for narrowing the gap which now separates the products of the two countries, appear to the writer to he chiefly as follows: (1) The methods adopted in the French sardine fishery result in the landing of the fish in excellent condition. This is the main object and is never lost sight of. The fish are caught singly in a delicate mesh, removed by hand, carefully kept on board the boats so as to avoid crowding and mashing, counted by hand into small baskets, taken to the factories within a few hours after being caught, and promptly put through the preserving process, so that ordinarily the deterioration which ensues is not worthy of mention. (2) In France the sardines caught in the early part of the season are not canned, because they are not in the best condition. It is only after the fish have become fat that they are considered suitable for canning. The fattening depends on an abundance of proper food, and along with it is an improvement in the flavor and general quality of the flesh.
While the young sea herring is an excellent fish, it may be admitted that even when at its best its meat is inferior to that of the fq,t young pilchard in richness. The latter has a peculiar flavor which, to a considerable degree, is preserved in canning and which probably can not be successfully imitated in the sea herring. However, the difference in flavor between the French and the American sardines on which many persons lay much stress appears to the writer to be of only secondary importance. The taste for French sardines has been acquired and perpetuated in the United States because of the long-continued unsatisfactory quality of American sardines. The herring is naturally no less wholesome than the pilchard. If it is caught for canning only when in prime condition, and if, in the form of canned sardines, it is placed on the markets with the minimum amount of deterioration and with such adjuvants in the way of oil, spices, etc., as may be suitable, it should and will receive ample recognition at home, and meet with a constantly increasing demand at prices that are now hardly dreamed of.
The history of a few canneries on our east coast during recent years has shown that a very marked improvement in the quality of American sardines is entirely practicable, and, furthermore, is highly appreciated by consumers, as evidenced by the much higher prices they are willing to pay and the steady demand beyond the capacity of the factories. With regard to the sardines of the Pacific coast of the United States, there is no reason why they should not, when properly canned, prove equal to the French fish in every respect. The high reputation which has been acquired by the comparatively small quantities packed in California during the past five or six years, and the excellent prices which they have commanded, argue well for the success of an extensive business.