Fig. 1 Sardines

"And here is something else that may strike you as marvelous: their domestic animals-sheep, oxen, camels and little ponies-are fed on fish. They are reduced to this diet because in all this country and all the surrounding regions there is no grass; but it is the driest place in the world. The fish on which these animals feed are very small and are caught in March, April and May in quantities that are truly amazing. They are then dried and stored in the houses and given to the animals as food throughout the year. I can tell you further that the animals also eat them alive-and good ones too- in great profusion and very cheap." 1


The above claim was made by the famous Marco Polo (1254 - 1324) the Medieval Italian traveler from Venice, when visiting the southern coast of the Arabian Peninsula and Hormuz at the entrance of the Arabian Gulf in the 13th century on his way to china. The fish he mentioned above was sardine, which has the highest omega-3-fatty acid2. During that time, at the entrance of the Gulf, there was an Arab Sultanate (like a small kingdom) called the Sultanate of Huruz, where he recorded his observations. The Sultanate of Huruz was a powerful country with strong marine force. It was established in 1214 AD and was destroyed by a Persian invasion in the year 1507.

I do not believe Marco Polo's claim that he saw animals eating live sardines, unless he saw cats and dogs eating them. I lived in a similar environment in the UAE but I had never seen sheep, cows and camels eat live sardines or other kinds of fish. However, feeding animals dry sardine is true in the entire Gulf, especially in the south like Oman. Marco Polo's stories are not considered credible by some historians. Dr. Frances Wood, Head of the Chinese Department of' the British Library, argues that the available evidence suggests that Marco Polo never travelled to China; most of his claims about the Far East were in fact derived from Arab and Persian sources3.

Sardines are more abundant in the Arabian Sea and south of the Arabian Gulf than its north. My mother used to make a nutritional meal for our cow every day to produce large amounts of milk. She mixed a kilogram of dry sardines with date seeds and loze (an almond-like tree) leaves and cooked the mixture with water for one hour. So, our cow was on high omega-3 diet and probably passed on to us the good fish oil through its milk!

I do not know how much oil is lost during the drying process, but researchers in Oman found the protein content of solar dried sardine was 51%, which is equal to the protein in soybeans4. Some people claim that those who ingest omega-3 fatty acid capsules would smell fishy but neither our cow nor its milk smelled fishy because dried sardine has no fishy smell. Numerous researches have shown that feeding animals a diet high in omega-3 increases omega-3 content in its meat, milk or eggs5. I may credit my mother for my relatively good health as an infant, because she used to eat fish daily. Fish was abundant and cheaper than meat then. Studies on humans have shown that incorporating fish in the diets of nursing mothers during lactation, in the form of 100 gram of sardines two or three times a week, contributes to an increase in omega-3 fatty acids in their milk6. High omega-3 eggs from chicken which are fed on such a diet are now commercially available.

Sardines had great economic importance in our region before the oil era, not as human nutrition, because we, the Gulf Arabs, rarely eat them, but they were and are still used as feed for livestock and also as fertilizers.

Since I mentioned Marco Polo’s observations about sardine in south Arabia, I must also mention the observations of one of the world's most famous and credible travelers, Ibn Battuta (1304 – 1368). He was Moroccan and started travelling at the age of 21 years, in 1325, one year after the death of Marco Polo. For thirty years he travelled the world, touring Africa and Asia until China and Europe.

Speaking of Dhofar, which is located in the south of the Peninsula, Ibn Battutah said:


"The most abundant fish is the kind known as sardine, in which there is a considerable amount of oil. It is an extraordinary thing that their beasts of burden are fed only on Sardine, and similarly also their goats. I have never seen the likes of that"1.


Ibn Battutah’s statement is still valid that sardines are the most abundant fish in that region of the Gulf. In 1992 the annual production of sardines in Oman was estimated to be about 25,000 tones7.

Ibn Battutah’s description is interesting in that he emphasized the oily nature of sardine. He probably saw a lot of oil covering the skin of the fish. Even though he was an Arab he called it sardine, not Ooma as we call it in the Gulf. The Moroccans as well as those living around the Mediterranean Sea call that fish sardine. It is not surprising because sardines are named after the Italian island of Sardinia, the second largest island in the Mediterranean Sea (after Sicily) where they were once found in abundance, but Ibn Battutah’s country, Morocco, is now the sardine capital of the world. Sardines represent more than 62% of the Moroccan fish catch and account for 91% of raw material usage in the domestic canning industry. Some 600,000 tones of fresh sardines are processed each year by the industry. The Moroccan industry is the largest canned sardine exporter in the world and the leading supplier of sardines to the European market8. Therefore, Ibn Battutah was familiar with this fish. He did not see people in his country feed their domestic animals sardines as in south Arabia because they have adequate grass in Morocco.




Sardines belong to a family called Clupeidae. This family is small, silvery, and nearly always encountered in schools. They are characterized by a single short dorsal fin near the middle of the body; no spines in the fins. There are 56 genera recognized and 180 species9. 



Food for the poor:


Sardines were the cheapest of all the fish in the Gulf. Gulf citizens rarely eat Sardine because it is not a tasty fish. I did taste it once during my childhood but I do not remember the taste. I bought one kilogram of Sardines this time to photograph it for this article (Fig.1) for 3 Qatari Riyals ($0.82), while one kilogram of grouper is for 40 Q. Riyals ($11). I was told that the non-Qatari citizens buy Sardines, specially the Indian and Asian workers.


During the past decade, there has been growing public awareness of healthy diets and interest in dietary components of food. Many people, especially the young educated generation are aware of the nutritional value of fish, which are rich sources of omega-3 fatty acids, and might favorably improve lipid profiles and reduce risk of coronary heart disease.  They are not aware; however, which fish has more fatty acids than others. If the news spread that sardines have very high content of omega-3-fatty acid, they probably will start eating them. Before I start advocating sardines for the public, I thought I should taste them again. The taste of grilled sardine on charcoal was not delicious but fairly good. I did not like the fried sardines.


Drying Sardines:


Drying of sardines in the Gulf is not very sophisticated. It is rather primitive and has been practiced for centuries until today. I have seen in the UAE tons of sardines spread over the sea shore on the sand and dried in the sun (Fig.2). Flocks of seagull birds come to feed on the freshly caught sardines on the sand, but two to three hours later, the sardines are cooked by the heat of sun and sand, which made the birds to abandon them.

Fig.2 Drying Sardines in UAE


Dry sardines are used as fertilizers or for animal feed as I mentioned above, but there is another forgotten use for it. Sardines were dried and ground to powder. Sardine powder was a very important food for desert travelers in the region and also for sailors in ships when they had no fish. It was easy to carry, easy to prepare and does not spoil for months. The traveler moistens the powder and eats it with bread, rice or dried dates. I had an opportunity to try it fifty years ago. It was good. Some elderly Gulf citizens, like my mother, still eat the powder on rare occasions to evoke the past. She gave me a small amount to try.




Sardines are not only high in omega-3 fatty acids; they are also a good source of vitamin D, calcium, B12, and protein. They are extremely low in contaminants such as mercury, not only in those caught in Qatari waters as seen in table1 but also in the USA as determined by the FDA10.  Sardine flesh has the highest sodium content, more than any fish analyzed by the Qatar Ministry of Health (MPH) laboratory11. Therefore, sardines may not be suitable for patients with heart failure or those on a low salt diet.


Table1: The concentration of minerals (mg/Kg) in Edible Portion of both Fish












































                    Source: Qatar Ministry of Public Health Lab11


Sardine Fat content:


The MPH laboratory analysis revealed that the fat content of the edible portion of sardine flesh was 4.4% compared to grouper's flesh which was 1.2%. The fatty acid contents of both Sardine and grouper (mg/100 gram of edible portion) were as follows11:



Total ω - 3

Total ω - 6







              Source: Qatar Ministry of Public Health Lab11


Sardines are the smallest edible fish in the Gulf as far as I know. The reason that it has such a high omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (ω -3 PUFA) is because they eat microorganisms that contain these acids. Larger fish feeding on sardine such as mackerel obtain their high content of ω -3 PUFA from sardine. It is a fact that fish do not naturally produce these oils, but obtains them through the ocean food chain from the marine microorganisms that are the original source of the ω -3 PUFA found in fish oils.

I am hoping that my discussion about Gulf fish will stimulate my colleagues to not only eat more fish but also read more about it. There is nothing fishy about advocating fish. Numerous prospective and retrospective trials from many countries have shown that moderate fish oil consumption decreases the risk of major cardiovascular events, such as myocardial infarction, sudden cardiac death, coronary heart disease, atrial fibrillation, and most recently, death in patients with heart failure.

It seems to me from reviewing the literature on Omega-3 PUFA and fish eating, that we are on the verge of another historical breakthrough with fish oil as we did with aspirin a few decades ago. Clinicians will soon be considering prescribing ω -3 PUFA to most of their patients, not only as therapy, but also as a preventive measure against cardiovascular events. Shall we start this approach or wait and see for more data? I am convinced that it is time to start.



  1.  New Arabian Studies 5, Edited by: G. Rex Smith, First published 2000 by University of Exeter press, UK ISSN: 1351-4709, ISBN: 0 85989 645 5
  2. Albinali, H.A. The Omega-3 in Arabian Gulf Fish: Part III. Heart Views.  2009;10 (1):27-29.

  1. Frances Wood "Did Marco Polo Go To China?" Secker and Warburg, London 1995
  2. Early RJ, Mahgoub O, Lu CD, Ritchie A, Al-Halhali AS, Annamalai K. Nutritional evaluation of solar dried sardines as a ruminant protein supplement. Small Rumin Res. 2001; 41(1):39-49.
  3. Nelson KA, Martini S. Increasing omega fatty acid content in cow's milk through diet manipulation: effect on milk flavor. J Dairy Sci. 2009; 92(4):1378-86.
  4. Patin RV, Vítolo MR, Valverde MA, Carvalho PO, Pastore GM, Lopez FA. The influence of sardine consumption on the omega-3 fatty acid content of mature human milk. J Pediatr (Rio J). 2006;82(1):63-9.
  5. M.G. Elhag and H.H. Elkhanjari. World Animal Review no.3,1992.
  7. John E. Randall. Coastal Fishes of Oman. Crawford House Publishing, Bathurst, Australia.1995:64
  8. Mercury Levels in Commercial Fish and Shellfish (FDA)
  9. Kotb Ahmed et al: Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acid Content of Some Popular Species of Arabian Gulf Fish. Food Chemistry 1991;40:185-190.
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