European Anchovy

European Anchovy

  • Scientific name: Engraulis encrasicolus
  • Size: Usually 10 – 15cm in length but can reach 20cm.
  • UK minimum size: N/a
  • UK shore caught record: 49 grams
  • IUCN Status: LC (Least Concern)
  • Distribution: Found throughout much of Europe and along the coasts of Africa.
  • Feeds on: Planktonic creatures.
  • Description: Small, elongated fish which is blue, green or greyish on the back and upper flanks and silver on the underbelly. Eyes are large in relation to body size. Singe dorsal fin is triangular and the tail is deeply forked.

Anchovy is a family of small forage fish with a worldwide distribution. There are over 140 different species of anchovy found across the world with a number of these species being of significant commercial importance.


Unsurprisingly it is the European anchovy which is the primary species of anchovy which is found around Britain and the rest of Europe. They have a widespread distribution being found throughout the North Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea and their range also extends into the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Despite the name, the European anchovy is commonly found all around the coast of Africa, and can be found all of the way down to the Cape of Good Hope on the southern tip of South Africa. European anchovy are absent from the colder Nordic waters of Iceland and Finland and are not found in the Baltic Sea or in the Barents Sea.

In British waters they are most common along the south west of England (see ‘Gold Rush’ below), and although they are also found in the English Channel and parts of the North Sea, and show up elsewhere around the UK on a sporadic basis. There is a UK shore caught record for this species. In 2003 Mr R. Roots caught a European Anchovy off Hastings, East Sussex which weighed 49 grams (1oz 11 dr). Due to their diffuse distribution and their diet being mostly made up of small planktonic creatures they are seldom caught on rod and line, and specimens which are caught are thought to often be misidentified as a sprat, small herring, immature bass or similar species.

Life Cycle

European anchovy live in huge shoals and feed on small planktonic creatures. They live in shallow seas and usually stay close to shore, but can tolerate water with extremely low salinity and have been known to swim up rivers and estuaries and have also been found in saltwater lakes and lagoons which are connected to the sea. However, in colder winters European anchovy may head to offshore waters and live at depths of several hundred metres. It is believed that some European anchovy may make some form of migration within European waters, although this is currently poorly understood. Furthermore, European anchovy have displayed strange fluctuations in abundance although the reasons for this are not yet known.

Anchovy Shoal
Anchovy can shoal in huge numbers.

They were, for example, abundant in the Wadden Sea (an intertidal zone along the coasts of Germany and the Netherlands) until the middle of the 1960s when they hugely reduced in number and stopped spawning in this area. However, by the 1990s European anchovy had returned to the Wadden Sea. While overfishing is often thought to be the cause of fish disappearing from certain areas this is not thought to be the case with European anchovy in the Wadden Sea. Instead, the scientific consensus is that changes in the distribution of plankton and climate change being more likely explanations.

Due to their small size European anchovy are preyed upon by a range of predatory fish. European anchovies are also an important source of food for marine mammals such as dolphins and seals and are also eaten by marine birds such as gannets and herring gulls.

Commercial Importance

While there are many species of anchovy found across the world there are five species which make up the bulk of commercial catches. These are:

• Californian Anchovy (Engraulis mordax)
• European Anchovy (Engraulis encrasicolus)
• Japanese Anchovy (Engraulis japonicus)
• Peruvian Anchoveta (Engraulis ringens)
• South African Anchovy (Engraulis encrasicolus)

Of these it is Peruvian anchoveta which is the most commonly caught – indeed, this fish is one of the most heavily exploited species in the world with up to nine million tons being caught every year since 2000. There are concerns throughout the scientific community that the overfishing of Peruvian anchoveta will have serious implications for the predatory species and wider food webs of the southeastern Pacific Ocean where this species is found.

World Anchovy Catch in 2010In European waters anchovy are most commonly caught by purse seining or small scale trawling. Despite the commercial pressure on this species the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) still class it as a species of Least Concern. Anchovy is classed as an oily fish and has a strong, distinctly salty taste. They are often sold in tins in supermarkets, although they are also available fresh from fishmongers and in some countries anchovies are eaten raw. Due to their strong flavour, they are often added to other dishes. They are a popular topping for pizzas and are also an ingredient in condiments such as Worcestershire sauce. Due to the fact that anchovies can be preserved by salting or storing in oil they have been used for long-distance trade for many centuries.

2009 UK Anchovy ‘Gold Rush’

Commercially caught anchovies
Commercially caught anchovies

In 2009 an unusual set of climatic conditions led to European anchovies being present off the south west coast of England in extremely high numbers. Trawlers in this area turned to targeting this species and could catch tons of anchovies each day. This was seen as a ‘gold rush’ trawlers set out to cash in on the anchovy shoals by catching as many as possible in the short amount of time they were present. The reasons for this unusual abundance of European anchovy off the coast of Britain (where they are usually relatively rare) is unknown, although it may be connected to climate change and warming sea temperatures.