Sardine, European pilchard, sardines

Sardina pilchardus

Method of production — Caught at sea
Capture method — Ring net
Capture area — North East Atlantic (FAO 27)
Stock area — England
Stock detail — Cornwall
Certification — Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)
Picture of Sardine, European pilchard, sardines

Sustainability rating three info

Sustainability overview

Drift and ring netting are traditional and more environmentally sensitive methods of fishing for pilchard. The fishery in Cornwall is Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certified and is the best choice.


Pilchard is a pelagic shoaling fish and a member of the herring family. It is widely distributed in European seas, reaching the northward limit of its range in the vicinity of the British Isles, in depths ranging between 10-100m (usually 25-55m by day, rising to 10-35m at night). Schools of juvenile fish tend to be separated from adults and are found closer inshore, typically associated with estuaries and rivers. Pilchards usually mature at a length of around 15 cm. Young pilchard are often referred to as sardine. They spawn in batches in spring and summer in the open sea or near the coast, producing 50-60,000 eggs with a mean diameter of 1.5 mm. After spawning, they migrate northwards to their feeding grounds and are then found inshore in coastal waters. In winter they migrate southwards. Pilchards usually have a length of 20cm, maximum is about 27cm. Maximum reported age is 15 years. Food is mainly planktonic in the spring and autumn; copepods and crustacean in the summer.

Stock information

Criterion score: 0.5 info

Stock Area


Stock information

Sardine in this area was previously assessed as a single stock combining Subarea 7 (English Channel and Celtic Sea) and divisions 8.a, 8.b, and 8.d (Bay of Biscay). Because there are indications of self-sustaining populations in each area and limited and poor quality data available for Subarea 7 recent benchmarking of the stock concluded that it is more appropriate to assess sardine in each area separately. There is currently no biomass or recruitment index for the whole of Subarea 7. The only available index comes from a survey that partially covers divisions 7.e and 7.f and is not considered sufficient to evaluate the stock biomass and exploitation status. The stock status relative to reference points and catch, landings and discard data is unknown. ICES advises that when the precautionary approach is applied, catches in each of the years 2018 and 2019 should be reduced by at least 20% relative to the average catches of 2014-2016. ICES is not able to quantify the corresponding catch value.


Criterion score: 0.25 info


The use of ring-nets in the Cornwall Inshore Fishery Conservation Area (IFCA) district to primarily target sardines (Sardina pilchardus), now commonly known as Cornish sardines, was re-established in the early 1990s. The fleet of commercial fishing vessels using ring-nets has gradually grown in both numbers and size of the vessels. Consequently, the overall annual catches of sardines has grown from around 2000 tonnes in the 2011-12 and 2012-13 fishing seasons, gradually rising to 6740 tonnes in the 2016/17 season. Other pelagic species including herring, mackerel and anchovies are also caught and landed from these vessels, usually as a bycatch. However, if large amounts of anchovies are known to be present in Cornwall or Devon waters, they will often become the focus of fishing, as they command a far higher price than the other pelagic species. The anchovy catch from ring-netters in 2016-17 amounted to 139 tonnes.

Thirteen ring-net vessels were active during the 2016-17 sardine fishing season. However, fifteen commercial fishing vessels based mainly at Newlyn, Mevagissey and Plymouth are now equipped to use ring-nets in the Cornwall IFCA district, 13 of these vessels where active during the 2017-18 sardine fishing season. Each vessel employs between three and five crew.

The average size of vessels used to operate ring-nets in the district has steadily increased over the last twenty years. They now range from an overall length of 9.99 metres to 14.95 metres.

The sardine fishing season normally begins in July and is expected to finish by the following January, though the fishing season can sometimes extend into March. In the period when sardines are not targeted, the majority of the ring-net vessels are not used for any other type of fishing activity. Therefore, for vessels used solely for ring-netting, there is a requirement to make sufficient profits within a seven to seven month period. Skippers of some vessels may choose to have a reduced ring-net fishing season and may instead decide to fish using other gear types, most likely gill and tangle nets for demersal fish species.

The ring-netting fleet operates mainly within the Cornwall IFCA district and skippers expect it to continue to do so if the presence of sardine shoals remains similar to now. High value anchovy shoals in either offshore or south Devon waters would tend to be the main draw for fishing elsewhere for a protracted length of time.

Fish catches landed by the ring-netters are largely processed by three companies based in Cornwall and one based in Plymouth. They have either made exclusive fish supply arrangements with individual owners of vessels, and/or may operate their own vessels to supply them. The fish processing companies play a key role in matching the supply of sardines to the market demand, and consequently the setting of the price which is paid to fishermen for their fish. At times, they may instruct skippers to reduce or stop the supply of fish to them. The catches of sardines taken in recent years were widely believed by those in the industry to be at about the right level in respect of their demand by the local fish processors and what they were prepared to pay for them.


All the owners of the fifteen netting vessels and the four local sardine processors are members of the Cornish Sardine Management Association (CSMA) who between them catch and process over 95% of the Sardine caught in the fishery. This CSMA was set up in 2004. Originally, it also included fishermen based at ports from Mevagissey to Looe who used drift nets and static nets for sardines, but the few that remain doing so (now on a very small scale) have not maintained their membership. An officer of Cornwall IFCA may attend CSMA meetings in an advisory capacity, upon invitation. The CSMA works closely with the Cornwall IFCA to manage the fishery.

During the 2017/18 season the members of the CSMA carried out scientific sampling of sardine catches as part of a Fisheries Science Project (FSP) being coordinated by CEFAS. Vessels skippers recorded length frequency samples of catches in their log books and processors also sampled length frequencies and individual weights of Sardines from all vessels. The fishery was certified as a sustainable fishery by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) in August 2010.

Capture Information

Criterion score: 0.25 info

There are 15 ring-net vessels based in Cornwall and Plymouth all of whom are members of the Cornish Sardine Management Association (CSMA). The 4 key processors of sardine based in the southwest are also members of the CSMA. There are also a very small number of smaller drift net vessels fishing from Cornish ports, these vessels have reduced in numbers over recent years due to the emergence of ring netting which catches both higher quantities and a higher quality of product.

Each ring net vessel employs 3-5 crew. The sardine season usually runs from July until January although not all ring net vessels will fish the entire season. Since the late 1990s the proportion of the total catch from ring nets has increased and that from drift nets catches has decreased. In 2016/17 season, ring nets vessels caught 6740 tonnes of Sardine.

The minimum landing size for sardine in EU waters is 11cm the average size of sardines caught by ring netters is around 19cm. Most of the Cornish catch is now taken by under 15m ring netters working along the Cornish Coast. The ring net measures between 220m & 440m in length and is up to 60m deep. A ring net is similar to, but much smaller than, a purse seine net. Occasionally scads, mackerel or horse mackerel are caught, but as the fish are encircled alive they can be immediately released. Anchovy are also targeted by ring netters when shoals are found close inshore.

Depending on the size and configuration of the current ring-net vessels, they are each able to retain up to between 10 tonnes and 35 tonnes of fish, mainly in tanks below deck containing seawater and often ice to preserve the fish. Some vessels may also use deck storage tanks, similarly filled with seawater and ice. Achieving the maximum fish holding capacity of a vessel from a single fishing trip was not necessarily the aim, particularly when fish were abundant and most ring-netters were having successful fishing, as the fish processors would want to see all the boats supplying them to have a fair share of the demand.

Fishermen are able to identify shoals of fish using their vesselas sonar equipment which has become very sophisticated. With experience it is possible to determine the species of fish and also estimate the size of the shoal. When a shoal is detected which is far larger than required, a judgement has to be made on how best to shoot the ring-net in order to try and catch a manageable quantity of fish. As it is impossible to be totally accurate with this, sometimes a ring-net will encircle more fish than is safe to hold in the net or take on board, resulting in them being deliberately slipped alive from the net.


Based on method of production, fish type, and consumer rating: only fish rated 2 and below are included as an alternative in the list below. Click on a name to show the sustainable options available.

Anchovy, anchovies
Arctic char
Herring or sild
Salmon, Atlantic (Farmed)
Salmon, Chinook, King Salmon
Salmon, Chum, Keta, Calico or Dog salmon
Salmon, Coho , Silver, White
Salmon, Pink, Spring , humpback
Salmon, Sockeye , Red Salmon, Bluebacks, Redfish
Trout, Rainbow
Tuna, albacore
Tuna, bigeye
Tuna, skipjack
Tuna, yellowfin

WGHANSA, 2017. Report of the Working Group on Southern Horse Mackerel, Anchovy and Sardine. ICES CM 2017/ACOM:17. 548 pp.