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The tiny silver fish made famous in the 1945 John Steinbeck novel "Cannery Row" are making a dramatic comeback on the West Coast.

In the 1930s and 1940s, vast schools of sardines were caught off California, in greater numbers than any fish in North America. During Steinbeck's heyday, there were 24 canneries on Monterey's Ocean View Avenue, later renamed Cannery Row. Then, suddenly, the fish were gone.

Now, experts say, warmer water, normal population swings and a statewide ban on sardine fishing from 1967 to 1986 helped restore the population.

"It's kind of like compound interest," Doyle Hanan, a marine biologist in La Jolla with the state Department of Fish and Game, told the San Jose Mercury News. "We estimate the sardine population has been increasing by about 30 percent a year on average for the last 20 years."

The current state quota lets commercial fishing crews collect up to 120,000 metric tons of sardines -- nearly triple last year's haul. If the quota is reached, it will be the most sardines caught since 1951. The record was set in 1936, when California boats hauled in 663,000 metric tons.

Sardines are now the No. 2 fish caught in California waters, ahead of salmon, tuna and herring and gaining on the top catch, squid.

"The sardine collapse showed us that the ocean has limits," said Christopher Dewees, marine fisheries specialist at the University of California, Davis. "The recovery shows that if oceanic conditions are favorable and there is relief from fishing, things will rebound."

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