ASTORIA - Move over popcorn shrimp, chicken strips, and garlic croutons. The new food sensation coming soon to a restaurant near you may be - sardines.

These are not the easy-to-spread-on-a-cracker, soft-bodied tiny fish usually seen lined up tidily in tins of flavored oil or mustard sauce. Some know them only as bait for fishing.

These sardines are much larger. Aside from being tasty, they are brimming with omega fatty acids. They pack a nutritional gold mine, and they vary from five- to- 11- percent body fat, depending on when they are caught, said Michael Morrissey, the director of Oregon State University's Seafood Laboratory in Astoria.

The laboratory, along with the Duncan Law Seafood Consumer Center next door, comprise the Coastal Oregon Marine Experiment Station and are satellites of OSU's Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport. These entities are dedicated to ocean-based research, particularly as it relates to understanding the ocean, its fisheries, and how they relate to coastal economies.

Why all this interest in sardines?

Well, it's because they're back, said Robert Emmett, a fisheries biologist for the National Fisheries Marine Service, which has an office at the Hatfield Marine Science Center.

Emmett is an expert on coastal fishes, including sardines, and the cyclical ocean conditions that determine their populations. He said that swarms of sardines are alive and abundant off the Oregon coast again, thanks to warmer ocean conditions that have revived a fishery dormant for nearly 60 years.

The return of the sardines means 11 sardine fishing boats and their crews now are working and supporting seven sardine operations in the Columbia River Estuary.

The sardines' rebound off the Pacific Coast can be attributed to the same ever-changing ocean conditions that contributed to the sharp decline in salmon numbers, Emmett said. While salmon like colder waters, sardines like it hot - relatively speaking.

The ocean warming that reached its peak during the 1970s and 1980s began to give way to a cooling trend that began in 1999. This changing temperature condition increased ocean upwelling, which is the movement of deeper water up to the surface. The upwelling increased the population of the tiny zooplankton and phytoplankton species that form the basis of the ocean's food chain.

An ocean cooling trend has not yet lowered ocean temperatures enough to reduce the sardine population, but the cooling has been enough to create good conditions for both warm- and cold-water species.

The result: Last year, crews harvested more than 40,000 metric tons of sardines in the waters off Oregon.

"Those aren't the ones you see canned," Morrissey said. "Those are the juveniles. These Oregon sardines average a third of a pound or more."

Sardines are naturally oily, moist and tasty, but they have one drawback that makes their processing a bigger challenge than the "gut, scale, season and cook" preparation approach suitable for trout or salmon: Sardines are bony.

It is because sardines have so many tiny bones that they are canned as juveniles, when their bones are smaller and softer, Morrissey said. The canning process liquefies the tiny bones, making them almost undetectable after processing.

The larger Oregon sardines, however, must be processed and presented in new palatable ways if they are to swim onto restaurant menus and grocery shelves. Making them attractive to consumers is the goal of the food scientists and chefs at the Seafood Lab and at OSU's Food Innovation Center in Portland. They will work together to develop the new products during the next sardine season, which begins in January.

Nobody is yet predicting that sardines are destined to be the new buffalo hot wings of the snack world, but plans for their arrival are going swimmingly.

Some sardine food ideas already under consideration include putting sardines in salads as cubed dried, seasoned croutons. The little fish would add protein, and a certain piquant flavor accent, Morrissey said. De-boned, breaded, and deep-fried, sardines also could become a new appetizer, or a new snack to enjoy while watching television. After all, they're already bite-sized.

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Robert Emmett, 541-867-0109