European Pilchard


    • Scientific name: Sardina pilchardus
    • Also know as: Sardine, Cornish Sardine
    • Size: 15-20cm in length, occasionally slightly larger.
    • UK minimum size: 20cm
    • UK shore caught record: 8oz
    • IUCN Status: LC (Least Concern)
    • Distribution: Found from Iceland to the northern coast of Africa and throughout the Mediterranean and Black Sea.
    • Feeds on: Mostly small planktonic creatures.
    • Description: Small silvery fish. Flanks are silver with a darker back. Pectoral, pelvic and anal fins are small with relatively large and triangular dorsal fin. Tail is deeply forked.

The European pilchard is a small, shoaling fish which has a high level of commercial importance. There is much confusion over the name of this species and it is often confused with other similar species.

Distribution and Habits

This species is found throughout Europe, particularly in the warmer waters of the Mediterranean and Adriatic seas, although it is also found around Britain and the colder waters of Scandinavian countries and Iceland. European pilchards generally live close to land and live and feed towards the surface of the sea. Their main source of food is small planktonic crustaceans, although they will also consume other sources of food such as immature fish and fish fry. European pilchards are themselves a major source of food for all types of predatory fish which are found in European waters. This species is thought to live for up for five years.

Name Confusion – Pilchards or Sardines?

There is a huge amount of confusion over what exactly a European pilchard is. This is because they are similar in appearance and behaviour to many other species in the Clupeiformes order such as European sprat (Sprattus sprattus), Atlantic herring (Clupea harengus) and European anchovy (Engraulis encrasicolus). These species are often classified together in commercial catches due to the difficulty in identifying differences between them.

There is often confusion over whether or not this species should be referred to as a pilchard or a sardine. The scientific name – Sardina pilchardus – gives a clue that both are correct. This species is often referred to as a pilchard but, as it is in the Sardina genus and can therefore accurately also be referred to as a sardine. There are, however, many other species of fish which are also referred to as sardines or pilchards with over thirty species worldwide being called either pilchards or sardines. However, it is only species in the sardina genus which are true sardine species.

Supermarkets do not help with this name confusion as they often change and alter the name of this species if they believe this will boost sales. Sainsbury’s, for example, found that sales were increased when the name pilchards was removed from this species and it was instead referred to as Cornish sardines. Read more about the re-branding of fish species in this article.

Commercial Value

Tinned Sardines

Sardines are usually sold tinned.

This species is of high commercial value. The main method of catching this species is with purse seine, although gill nets are also used. Due to the abundance of this species it is heavily commercially exploited with around one million tons being taken each year in total, and several areas heavily relying on this species for a large proportion of their catches. Despite the commercial pressure on the European pilchard stocks are thought to be in relatively good shape, due to the high fecundity of this species. The IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) classes this as a species of Least Concern with a stable population trend.

European pilchards can be sold fresh or frozen, although UK consumers are most likely to come across this species tinned or canned. This species is also used as a commercial fishing bait on long-lines.

Pilchards have some use as a sea fishing bait. Read more on this topic by clicking here.

UK Rod Caught Record

The UK rod caught record for this species is a specimen of 8oz caught by N. Berry at Plymouth, Devon in 1987.

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