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European pilchard (Sardina pilchardus)

Also known as: pilchard, sardine, true sardine

Illustration: Sarah Rot

Morphology & Biology

The European pilchard (Sardina pilchardus) is a coastal pelagic species often confused with the Atlantic Herring because of its similar appearance and behaviour. Also known as the Sardine or Cornish Sardine, these fish can grow up to 27.5cm and weigh up to 200g. This species has a rounded belly with silver coloring on the underside, which transitions from a golden colour on the flanks to a dark green back.

Adults of this species typically reach maturity between 2-3 years, depending on location, and may live up to 15 years. Individuals in the Mediterranean Sea mature relatively quickly, at approximately 2 years, and tend to have a shorter lifespan of around 5 years.

These fish feed mainly on planktonic crustaceans and larvae. Sardines mainly feed at night, following the plankton in shallower water during night time and travelling to deeper waters during the day. The European pilchard is an important food source for larger species of fish, whales, and diving sea birds, particularly in the Mediterranean Sea where they are highly abundant.

Spawning occurs between the coast and 100km offshore, and takes place at variable times in the year when sea temperatures are below 16 degrees°C. Typically, spawning takes place between October and May. Large shoals release their eggs and sperm directly into the water column between 20-25m deep, often turning the surface white.

Sardines off the Spanish Atlantic coast (Photo: Michal Černý)

Distribution

The European pilchard is found throughout European waters. It ranges from southern Iceland and Scandinavia, to as far south as Senegal on the north African coast. However,  they are greater in abundance in the Mediterranean and Adriatic Seas and comprise a separate subpopulation from those in northern regions surrounding the UK.

This species inhabits the coastal zones within its range and migrates vertically in the water column on a daily cycle. Long, narrow shoals of pilchards situate themselves parallel to the coast.

Threats

The European pilchard is mainly under threat from commercial fisheries. They have a low commercial value and are typically used for bait and as food for aquaculture, rather than for human consumption. As global aquaculture production increases over time, fishing pressure is likely to increase for this species, and conservation efforts will become more important than ever.

Since they are pelagic and spawn in the water column, they are not threatened by habitat loss: however as climate change increases the overall sea temperature, habitat degradation is occurring, affecting the wider food web which in turn affects the European Pilchard.

Fisheries & Aquaculture

Global catches of the European pilchard have been increasing since the 1950’s. Since 1990, between 1 million tonnes and 1.5 million tonnes of European pilchard have been caught per year.

This species is caught mainly using purse seines, although other methods are used, including gillnets and occasionally bottom trawls. The largest commercial catches are in Morocco: in 1990, which was the peak year of catches, Moroccan fishers caught more than 45% of the total commercial catch.

Unfortunately, since there is confusion over the identification of European pilchards, there may be considerable catches being attributed to other species, such as European Sprat (Sprattus sprattus), Atlantic Herring (Clupea harengus) and European Anchovy (Engraulis encrasicolus). Therefore, the actual numbers of European pilchards which are removed each year could be much higher than is reported, and populations may be under more pressure than is widely appreciated.

Fun fact

The European pilchard, like many other similar species, feeds by swimming with its mouth open and filtering out food items. This means that as giant shoals are spawning they probably consume large numbers of their own eggs and sperm!

Dolphins feeding on a large school of sardines (Photo: pinimg.com)

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