European Sprat

European Sprat
  • Scientific name: Sprattus sprattus
  • Also known as: Skipper, Bristling
  • Size: Up to 15cm in length
  • UK minimum size: N/a
  • UK shore caught record: N/a
  • IUCN Status: DD (Data Deficient)
  • Distribution: All around UK and Ireland.
  • Feeds on: Fish eggs, larvae and plankton.
  • Description: Small fish with shiny, silvery scales. Head is small and mouth is upturned with lower jaw slightly protruding. Tail is deeply forked. Dorsal, anal and pectoral fins are all very small.
Commercially caught sprats

Sprats are caught commercially in huge numbers.

Sprat is often used as a generic term for any kind of small fish. However, the European sprat is actually a specific species of forage fish which are common all around the UK. Sprat form into large shoals and can be found in water ranging from a few metres deep all the way down to around one hundred metres. In summer months vast shoals of sprat can come into inshore waters and estuaries, and sprat can travel surprisingly far up rivers as this species can happily in water with a very low salinity level. Sprat feed on tiny fish larvae and plankton and are themselves a major part of the marine food chain, as they provide a source of food for practically all predatory fish found in UK waters, and are also an important source of food for marine birds such as gannets and herring gulls.


The European sprat is found all round the UK in the warm summer months. They are common in the North Atlantic and found northwards as far as the Baltic Sea. Their range extends southwards to the northern waters around the African continent and they are found throughout the Mediterranean and the Black Sea.

Commercial Value and Population Trends

Sprat are popular as a food fish and are usually caught by purse seine methods in fisheries which specialise in catching sprats. They are usually smoked or fried, and are a a traditional and important fish in eastern European countries, especially Latvia. While their reputation as a food fish has declined in Britain in recent years they seem to have made something of a comeback with some UK supermarkets now selling sprats on their wet fish counters. Sprat are also heavily utlised for non-human consumption purposes, such as being processed into fishmeal.European Sprat Catches

The health of sprat stocks are something of a mystery. The IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) states that there is not enough information to come to a conclusion on sprat numbers, and it is unknown whether the population trend of this species is declining or increasing. The numbers of sprat appear to fluctuate, especially in the Mediterranean, but stock numbers have declined steeply in the Black Sea. Further research into sprat numbers is necessary and reduction of fishing intensity may be necessary in certain areas to ensure that numbers of this species do not decline further.

Use as Bait

Sprats are underused as a sea fishing bait in the UK, and can be especially useful when they are float fished for large pelagic species such as pollock. They are very cheap to buy from the fish counters of supermarkets and fishmongers. Click here for more information on using sprats as bait.

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