European anchovy (Engraulis encrasicolus)

Illusration: Sarah Rot

Morphology & Biology

The European anchovy is a small and short-lived pelagic fish that aggregates in large schools close to the water surface. They have a very slim and elongated body that can reach a maximum length of 20cm. They are most characterized by a prominent blunt snout, and large mouth, with the upper jaw extending well behind the big eyes. The body is silvery, turning to a darker greenish-blue along the back. A silver lateral line runs along the length of the fish to the base of the caudal fin. Anchovies are often misidentified as sardines (and vice versa): however, anchovies are smaller and more slender than sardines, have a proportionally larger eye, and their snout projects beyond their lower jaw.

Spawning of anchovies occurs multiple times a year between April and November, with peaks usually in the warmest months. The females release eggs into the water column, where they float in the upper 50m, and hatch as larvae 24 to 65 hours later. European anchovies grow rapidly, with fish reaching a body length of 10cm after only one year.

Anchovies feed on planktonic species and are, in turn, a very important staple in the diets of many coastal dolphins, seals, and seabirds.

Anchovies (top) and sardines (bottom) are often confused with each other, but can be distinguished by their different body size, their snouts and the relative size of the eye.


The European anchovy has a wide distribution and can be found congregating and migrating in large numbers in the shallow coastal waters of Europe, from southern Norway to West Africa and the Mediterranean and Black Seas. However, due to exploitation and habitat loss the main congregations of these fish are now found on the Atlantic coasts of Portugal, Spain, and France.

Source: http://www.fao.org/fishery/species/2106/en


The European anchovy is a species with high commercial value, and in consequence  fishing has been a threat to the species for years. Catches in EU waters have declined by 90% since 1965.

Climate change is believed to be having an effect of the distributions of European anchovies. Since anchovies rely on planktonic species for their food, the changing patterns of plankton abundance with rising sea temperatures are thought to have reduced the abundance of anchovy, especially in the waters of the Netherlands. The Peruvian anchovy (Engraulis ringens) has been suffering from extreme El Niño events in the past, where the water temperatures off the coast of South America are exceptionally high. Anchovies do not migrate far enough poleward during warm periods to avoid the increased temperatures, indicating that global warming could be a serious threat to the species.

A further threat to these fish is the increasing frequency of jellyfish blooms – which are linked to fishing activities – which feed on anchovy eggs and larvae.

Schooling anchovies (Photo: Alessandro Duci / Wikipedia)

Fisheries & Aquaculture

The European anchovy generally lives for less than 3 years. The number of young fish who survive to maturity (“recruitment”) is dependent on climatic variations. Because of this short life-span and vulnerability to environmental factors, the population can fluctuate dramatically from year to year. This makes it a very hard fish to manage commercially, and catch quotas under the maximum sustainable yield (MSY) system have largely failed to manage the populations sustainably. Catches in EU waters have declined by 90% since 1965 and, between 2006 and 2010, the main anchovy fishery in the Bay of Biscay had to be closed due to the extremely poor state of the population. In 2019 the biomass of all spawning-age anchovies was the highest it has ever been since the anchovy surveys in the Bay of Biscay began in 1987. Scientists speculate that the recovery was mainly triggered by the closure of the fishery for five years.

Anchovies are caught by pelagic trawlers and purse-seiners year-round.

Source: http://www.fao.org/fishery/species/2106/en

Anchovy are near the base of the food chain, forming an important food source for many coastal species. The impact of the large-scale removal of anchovies on the marine ecosystem is poorly understood.

Anchovies are also targeted on an industrial scale for the production of fishmeal. More than 6 million tons of fishmeal are produced every year, and used as a feed for livestock and fish in aquaculture. Fishmeal is made from wild-caught small marine fish, like anchovies, herrings and sardines. Approximately 4 to 5 tons of fish are required to produce 1 ton of fishmeal – an unbelievable and unnecessary waste of life and resources!

Anchovies are most commonly sold canned in oil or ground into paste, for making sauces. In Mediterranean countries they’re often served pickled in vinegar or fried. While still popular in Mediterranean and Black Sea cuisine, the poor state of the stocks mean that the anchovies used in such dishes are now often the imported Peruvian Anchovy (Engraulis ringens) from the Pacific coast of South America.

Anchovies are often used by fishermen as bait to catch larger fish species, such as tuna or sea bass.

Fun fact

November 12th is National Pizza with the Works Except Anchovies Day.

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