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 20 cm. They are most characterized by a long pig-like snout and large mouth, with the upper jaw extending well behind the big eyes. The body is silvery with a blue or greenish back and a silver lateral line, that runs from the base of the caudal fin. Anchovies are often misidentified as sardines (and the other way around), but sardines are bigger than anchovies and the eye of anchovies is a lot bigger than the one of sardines (in relation to the body size).

Spawning of anchovies occurs multiple times a year during a period from April to November with peaks usually in the warmest months. The females release the eggs into the water column, where they are floating in the upper 50 m, before the larvae will hatch 24 to 65 hours later. The growth in European anchovies is rapid with fish reaching a body length of 10 cm 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 (up) and sardines (bottom) are often mixed-up, but can be distinguished by a different body size, their snouts and the 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 over exploitation and habitat loss the main congregations of such fish are now found on the Atlantic coasts of Portugal, Spain, and France.


European anchovy is a species with high commercial importance, therefore overfishing has bee a threat to the stocks for years. Catches in EU waters have declined by 90% since 1965 and, since 2005, the main anchovy fishery in the Bay of Biscay has been closed due to the extremely poor condition of the stock.

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 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 are the recent frequency of jellyfish blooms – the occurence of which are linked to overfishing – which are known to feed on the anchovy eggs and larvae.

European Anchovies on a fishmarket in the Mediterranean (Paul Asman&Jill Lenoble)

Fisheries & Aquaculture

The European Anchovy generally lives for less than 3 years. Because of the short life-span of the fish, recruitment can vary greatly and lead to violent stock fluctuations 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 stock sustainably. Catches in EU waters have declined by 90% since 1965 and, since 2005, the main anchovy fishery in the Bay of Biscay has been closed due to the extremely poor condition of stock. The main remaining fishery is in North-West Spain and South-West France and are caught by pelagic trawlers and purse-seiners all year-round.

Anchovies are also trageted on a 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 ressources!

European Anchovies in the processing plant of a fish meal factory (NOAA)

Anchovies are most commonly sold canned in oil or grinded as a 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.

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