Greater and Lesser Sandeel

Sandeel buried in the sand
Both lesser and greater sandeel bury themselves in the sand or shingle of the seabed during daylight, or when threatened by predators.

Sandeel is a generic term for a number of small species which are found all around the UK. The two most common are the greater sandeel (Hyperoplus lanceolatus) and the lesser sandeel (Ammodytes tobianus) . The lesser sandeel is by far the most common, but the greater sandeel is the most likely to be caught by anglers using rod and line. Sandeel is found in massive numbers all around the UK where they form a vital part of the marine ecosystem as they provide a food source for many fish and other marine creatures. Sandeel favour shallow inshore waters over sandy seabeds and can be found around beaches, estuaries, harbours and piers. Both greater and lesser sandeel live their whole lives close to the shore and are rarely found in water deeper than twenty metres. For their winter hibernation (and when not feeding) sandeel bury themselves down to depths of twenty to thirty centimetres into the sand and sediment of the seabed – hence the name of sandeel. They also do this when threatened by predators. On very low tides it is possible to dig sandeels out of the sand of the inter-tidal zone. Despite their name, sandeels are not true eels and are in fact fish species. For this reason, sand lance (or launce) is an alternative name for this species. However, sandeel seems to have stuck and is the name that is widely used by anglers and the general public today.

Greater Sandeel

  • Scientific name: Hyperoplus lanceolatus
  • Also known as: Launce, Sand Lance, Great Sand Eel
  • Size: up to 14ins/35cm. UK Shore caught typically 8 – 11ins.
  • UK minimum size: 20cm/8in
  • UK shore caught record: 239 grams
  • IUCN Status: LC (Least Concern)
  • Distribution: All around the UK over sandy, shingle and light gravel seabeds.
  • Feeds on: Plankton, fish fry, small fish and will also take small crustaceans.
  •  Description: Elongated body with pointed head and mouth. Long dorsal fin which runs two-thirds of the length of the body, with anal fin running one third. Upper body can range in colour from yellowish to black or grey/green. Flanks and underside are white. Chevron pattern can be present on the belly.

The greater sandeel is the larger of the two main species of sandeel. It feeds on small fish and sometimes shoals with mackerel and garfish. It is found all around the British Isles, with its range extending into the Baltic Sea and the Norwegian Sea and along the coasts of Portugal, Spain and France, although it is absent from the warmer waters of the Mediterranean. While greater sandeel are edible they are only caught for human consumption in tiny numbers, with the majority of greater sandeel which are caught by commercial vessels being used for non-human consumption (i.e. fishmeal). The IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) classes this species as one of Least Concern.

As this species feeds on small fish it can be caught by anglers who are targeting mackerel with spinners, daylights and feathers. Greater sandeel caught in this way are often foul hooked in the middle of the body due to the way in which they attack the lures. This species can be dug out of the sand of the beach at low tide in some locations. The British shore caught record is a specimen of 239 grams (around 8½ oz) caught by B. K. Le Breton in Guernsey in the Channel Islands in 1979.

Lesser Sandeel

  • Scientific name: Ammodytes tobianus
  • Size: up to 8ins/20cm.
  • UK shore caught minimum size: N/a
  • UK shore caught record: N/a
  • IUCN Status: DD (Data Deficient)
  • Distribution: All around the UK over sandy and light shingle seabeds. Lesser sandeel stay close to the shore and are rarely found in water more than twenty metres deep. Harbour, estuaries and sheltered bays often hold lesser sandeel.
  • Feeds on: Plankton, krill and minute sea creatures.
  • Description: Very similar to greater sandeel but only grow to around half the size.

Lesser sandeels are the much more numerous cousin of the greater sandeel. They feed by hunting very small fish, plankton, tiny sea creatures and fish fry. They form large shoals and move around feeding from the onset of dusk, although at certain times of the year they may feed during the day. They have a similar European distribution to the greater sandeel, but are also found in limited numbers in the warmer waters of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea.

This species is a vitally important part of the marine food chain, with all predatory species of fish feeding on lesser sandeels, and many species of sea birds relying on lesser sandeels for a major part of their diet. Despite not being consumed by humans, the lesser sandeel is of immense commercial importance with many hundreds of thousands of tons of this species caught each year in European waters for fishmeal and animal feed, leading to concern that this species is over-exploited (read more on these issues below). The conservation status of the lesser sandeel is classed as Data Deficient by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Lesser sandeels are generally considered to be too small to catch with a rod and line, although it may be the case that the very largest lesser sandeels are caught on feathers or daylights and mistaken for a greater sandeel. Like the greater sandeel, this species can be dug out of the sand of some beaches at low tide, and they make an excellent sea fishing bait for a wide range of species.

Difference Between Greater and Lesser Sandeels

While easy to confuse greater and lesser sandeels there are easy ways to tell the difference between the two species. If a sandeel is over twenty centimetres in length it is likely to be a greater sandeel. Both species have a mouth which is tube-like, but the mouth of the lesser sandeel extends out further than the mouth of the greater sandeel and is also toothless (while the greater sandeel may have a number of small teeth). There is also a deeper fork to the tail of the lesser sandeel.

Other Species of Sandeel

There are a total of five species of sandeel in UK waters. The lesser and greater sandeels were discovered, classified and given their scientific name in the 1700 and 1800s. In 1879 it was discovered that there was an additional species, which was named the smooth sandeel (Gymnammodytes semisquamatus). The belief that there were three species of sandeel continued until 1934 when the Scottish marine biologist Dr Douglas Raitt discovered a fourth species of sandeel in British waters which was named Raitt’s sandeel (Ammodytes marinus) (it is also known as the small sandeel). Following this, a fifth species of sandeel was discovered in 1950 by P.G. Corbin. This species came to be known as Corbin’s sandeel (Hyperoplus immaculatus). The smooth, Raitt’s and Corbin’s sandeel all grow to a similar size to the greater sandeel but they are deeper water species which do not come close to land and are rarely encounter by shore-based anglers. Corbin’s sandeel does have a British shore caught record, with a specimen of 128 grams (4½ oz) being caught by S. L. Carter in 1978 in the Channel Islands.

Importance of Sandeel to the Marine Ecosystem

Puffin with sandeels
A puffin with its bill full of lesser sandeels.

The importance of sandeels to the UK marine ecosystem cannot be overstated. Almost all predatory fish in British waters will feed on sandeels at some point, as do many seabirds such as gulls, fulmars, puffins and gannets, and marine mammals such as seals and dolphins also feed on sandeels. To certain species of fish like pollock and mackerel the lesser sandeel are a vital part of their diet. While sandeel are not caught for human consumption they are harvested in huge numbers for aquaculture and the fishmeal industry – for example, Denmark alone catches an incredible 458,000 tons of sandeel in EU waters every year. If lesser sandeel are overfished and stocks collapse the knock-on effect of the lack of this humble fish will be massive. Species such as mackerel would fail to migrate the UK or starve when they arrive here, pollock and other bigger predatory fish would decline in number, and those that remain would move offshore to hunt in deeper water. The breeding success of seabirds has been proven to fluctuate in line with sandeel stocks and marine mammals such as seals, porpoises and dolphins are known to feed exclusively on sandeels during spring and early summer. Clearly, sandeels are massively important to the health of the marine ecosystem and it is imperative that industrial fishing operation are prevented from over-exploiting this species.

Use of Sandeels as Bait

Both lesser and greater sandeel is an excellent bait for all kinds of species. Most fish will take a sandeel presented on the seabed (they are particularly good for catching ray species), and they can also be used for float fishing for species such as pollock and mackerel. If they can be kept alive they can make excellent live bait for catching large bass. For details on gathering, buying and using sandeel, see the sandeel as bait page.