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Like fresh sardines? Their summer season starts in July, but they’ll be scarce this year.

The National Marine Fisheries Service of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said stocks of Pacific sardines are now too low to allow for commercial fishing, so the commercial sardine season has been called off.

But there’s hope for fresh sardine lovers. Some sardines are allowed to be caught if used for fresh bait. Also, certain West Coast tribes of Native Americans are allowed to harvest these small herring relatives. And — here’s the kicker — up to 40 percent of the pelagic fish (those that inhabit the upper layers of the open ocean) caught by trawlers in purse seines can be sardines, up to a limit of 15,435,000 pounds of these exceedingly nutritious fish.

That ought to be enough to get you a few fresh sardines this summer.

(Check the Santa Rosa Seafood Co. on Santa Rosa Avenue, Oliver’s and Whole Foods for availability.)

Why are stocks of sardines so low? Are they fished out? The answer, according to marine biologists at NOAA, is no. They aren’t overfished.

Their stocks are simply being managed so that they don’t become fished out.

Sardine populations go through a regular boom-and-bust cycle, and right now, stocks are at the nadir of a bust cycle.

This has triggered the ban on commercial fishing, which will allow stocks to replenish.

However, as you can see, there will still be fresh sardines to be had.

And thank goodness, because fresh sardines (and canned sardines in olive oil or water, as well) are truly a superfood, containing copious amounts of almost every nutrient our bodies need.

Rich in protein

Sardines are rich in protein (an ounce of protein in three ounces of fish), omega-3 essential fatty acid (two grams in three ounces of fish), vitamin B-12, vitamin D (nearly 70 percent of our daily requirement in three ounces of fish), selenium (75 percent of our daily requirement in three ounces of fish), phosphorus, calcium and iron.

One substance they don’t contain is poisonous mercury, found in many ocean fish such as swordfish and bigeye tuna.

Sardines are small, grow quickly, and are low on the food chain, and thus have an insignificant amount of mercury.

When you do find them this month, fresh sardines will only be available for a few weeks at most. Flash-frozen sardines will be available year-round, of course, as are the canned sorts.

But it’s high grilling season right now, and there’s no better way to treat a fresh sardine than to grill it.

First, you have to fillet it. Here’s how.

Cover your cutting board with a length of wax paper.

Lay the sardine belly up with the head away from you. Slice the belly open with a sharp paring knife from the tail end to the head.

Flick away the entrails with your finger and discard them. Rinse the belly cavity clean under cold running water, then pat the fish dry with paper towels.

Hold the head between your thumb and forefinger and pull backward toward the tail, tearing the head from the body. Discard the head.

Splay the sides of the fish open, skin side down on the wax paper. Grasp the backbone at the head end and carefully lift it up and away from the fillets.

You’re left with a cleaned, filleted sardine ready for a marinade and then ready for a quick grilling. Grilling is the best way to eat this delicacy.

Sardines are a bony fish, so feel for bones with your tongue as you eat your sardine. Most of the bones will have come off with the backbone, though.

You can also clean and fillet a sardine using your thumbnail as a knife to open the belly and gut the fish.

Use a finger to separate the flesh from the backbone on one side, then run your finger down the spine to separate flesh from bones on the other side.

Grasp the spine just behind the head and break it, then lift it and most of the rib bones will come with it. Discard the head. After a fish or two, you’ll get the hang of it.

The fresh sardine is an oily fish — but that oil is omega-3, an exceptionally valuable nutritional fat.

It’s also pretty “fishy,” so many folks like to marinate the fillets to temper that fishiness before grilling.

A good marinade is equal parts olive oil, lemon juice, and parsley, or alternatively, tamari, lemon juice, mashed garlic, and parsley or other herb.

Place the fillets in the marinade in the fridge for a couple of hours before grilling.

When you’re ready to grill, sprinkle the fillets with a little salt and pepper and just a smidge of ground cumin if you like that spice.

Grilled fresh sardines

To grill, use a mesh screen so the fillets don’t fall through the grill onto the flames.

Get the mesh hot and brush with olive oil, then lay on the fillets. They only take a minute or two on each side to cook through.

Serve with a salsa such as a pico de gallo.

Jeff Cox is a Kenwood-based food and garden writer. Reach him at jeffcox@sonic.net

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