Sardine, European pilchard, sardines

Sardina pilchardus

Method of production — Caught at sea
Capture method — Purse seine
Capture area — North East Atlantic (FAO 27)
Stock area — Cantabrian Sea and Atlantic Iberian waters
Stock detail — 8c, 9a
Picture of Sardine, European pilchard, sardines

Sustainability rating five info

Sustainability overview

Updated: December 2019.

This stock scores a default red rating as biomass is below Blim (196, 334 tonnes) and no precautionary Recovery Plan is in place for the stock. Recruitment has been at its lowest historical level since 2006. This is likely by a combination of fisheries and environmental changes. Sardine in this area has been jointly managed by Spain and Portugal. There is no official Total Allowable Catch (TAC) set for this stock. A six year plan of recovery has been produced, but it is not precautionary, meaning it does not have a high enough likelihood of recovering the stock within two years. ICES have since provided additional advice on the creation of a more effective recovery plan. 99% of this stock is captured by purse seine fisheries. As sardines are pelagic, there is little impact on the seabed and discards are considered to be negligible.


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: Critical fail info

Stock Area

Cantabrian Sea and Atlantic Iberian waters

Stock information

Sardines are heavily fished off the Bay of Biscay and the Portuguese Coast. The Iberian sardine stock is in a state of low productivity, which has resulted in low recruitment for the last decade. This is likely to be owing to a combination of fisheries and environmental changes. The biomass of the stock has experienced a large decline, from nearly 650,000 tonnes to less than 150,000 tonnes in 2018. The stock is depleted and in need of a recovery plan.

The biomass of age 1 and older fish dropped below MSY BTrigger (252,523 tonnes) in 2010 and has stayed below Blim (196,334 tonnes) since 2011. After reaching an historic low of 145,603 tonnes in 2015, there has been a small increase, and in 2019 it was 179,410 tonnes. Recruitment has been low since 2005. Fishing mortality fell below Flim (0.156) for the first time in 2017, and in 2018 was the lowest in the time-series, at 0.086. F remains above FMSY (0.032).

ICES advises that when the MSY approach is applied, there should be less than 4142 tonnes caught in 2020. Since 2008, catches have been above advice with exception of the years 2013 and 2017. In 2018 and 2019, the advice was for zero catches. The change in the advice for 2020 compared to the advice for 2019 is due mainly to the revision of the reference points. The advice for 2020 is based on biological reference points corresponding to a low stock productivity dynamic.


Sardine in this area has been jointly managed by Spain and Portugal. There is no official Total Allowable Catch (TAC) set for this stock. The minimum conservation reference size for all sardines in EU waters is 11cm. In 2009, the fishery was certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), however, this certification was lost in 2012. Since then, fisheries managers have restricted the number of days a week that fishermen can catch sardines, the size of the catch, and restricted fishing to only six months during a year. In Portugal, vessels greater than 15m in length (representing over 90% of the total catch), are obliged to record catches in a fishing log book. These vessels are also required to use satellite vessel monitoring systems (VMS).

The governments of Spain and Portugal have produced a six year plan for the recovery of the sardine stock, but it was assessed by ICES in 2017 and found not to be precautionary. The target of the interim management plan of this stock is to increase the biomass to at least 80% of Blim before the end of 2023, an increase of 78% from the 146,000 tonnes in 2017 over a period of 6 years (an increase of 9-13% annually). In 2019 ICES provided additional advice, on request from Spain and Portugal, on which harvest control rules (HCR) would be the most effective to employ. ICES have advised that when the advice is for an extremely low catch, it may be difficult to apply full implementation. ICES suggests that it would be beneficial to have information from a monitoring fishery with an associated sampling protocol to estimate the state of the stock.

In the European Union (EU), EU fishing vessels can fish up to 12 nautical miles of any Member State coast, and closer by agreement. There is overarching fisheries legislation for all Member States, but implementation varies between fisheries, Member States and sea basins.
The EU Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) is the primary overarching policy. Its key environmental objectives are to restore and maintain harvested species at healthy levels (above BMSY), and apply the precautionary and ecosystem-based approaches to fisheries management. To achieve the MSY objective, the MSY exploitation rate is supposed to be achieved by 2020, but this seems unlikely to happen.
The CFP also introduced a Landing Obligation (LO) which bans the discarding at sea of species which are subject to catch limits. Some exemptions apply to species with high post-capture survival, and where avoiding unwanted catches is very difficult. These exemptions are outlined in regional discard plans. Despite quota ‘uplift’ being granted to fleets under the LO, available evidence suggests there has been widespread non-compliance with the policy, and illegal and unreported discarding is likely occurring.
Multi-Annual Plans (MAPs) are a tool for implementing the CFP regionally, with one in place or being developed for each sea basin. They specify fishing mortality targets and ranges for the main targeted species, as well as lower biomass reference points. If populations drop below these points it should trigger a management response. The MAPs also empower Member States to jointly apply measures such as closures, gear or capacity limits, and bycatch limits. There is concern however that the MAPs do not provide adequate safeguards to maintain all stocks at healthy levels.
The EU Technical Measures regulation addresses how, where and when fishing can take place in order to limit unwanted catches and ecosystem impacts. There are common measures that apply to all EU sea basins, and regional measures that vary between sea basins. Measures include Minimum Conservation Reference Sizes (MCRS, previously Minimum Landing Sizes, MLS), gear specifications, mesh sizes, closed areas, and bycatch limits.
The Control Regulation, which is being revised in 2019, addresses application of and compliance with the above, e.g. keeping catches within limits, recording and sharing data, and satellite tracking of vessels over 12 metres (VMS).

Capture Information

99% of this stock is captured by purse seine fisheries. The Portuguese Purse Seine fleet is composed of 192 vessels with an average length of 15.03m. 136 of those vessels are almost exclusively directed to sardine fisheries. The Spanish Purse Seine fleet consists of 344 vessels with an average length of 21.13m.

Purse seining is a method that targets whole shoals of fish. A large part of a typical fishing trip is spent searching for schools with echo sounders and sonar. Once schools of pelagic fish have been detected, large nets (up to 800m long and 150m deep) are set rapidly with the help of a small auxiliary vessel. The net is deployed in such a way that it encircles the shoal. The lead line is then drawn closed by the purse wire, which draws the base of the net together preventing the fish from escaping. Catches using this method can be so large that the net is too heavy to bring aboard and the fish are scooped out of the main net using hand-nets, or more typically, pumped aboard via flexible pipes or hoses. Purse-seiners have low bycatch of non-target species. Targeting shoaling species with this method is usually very selective in terms of species, but less so in terms of size. At present, purse-seiners in Portuguese waters have a minimum mesh size of 16mm.

Sardine distribution is restricted to coastal shelf waters, mainly at depths above 150m. As sardines are pelagic, there is little impact on the seabed. Discarding is considered to be negligible. Cetacean interactions are monitored by on board observers and found to have low impact, however seabird and turtle bycatch is unknown. Pelagic crabs are encountered but released alive. The overall impact of the sardine fishery on the pelagic ecosystem of the Atlantic Iberian waters has not been evaluated. The most likely impacts will be changes to predator-prey relationships due to modification of sardine abundance etc.


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, Chum, Keta, Calico or Dog salmon
Salmon, Pink, Spring , humpback
Salmon, Sockeye , Red Salmon, Bluebacks, Redfish
Trout, Rainbow
Tuna, albacore
Tuna, skipjack
Tuna, yellowfin


ICES. 2019. Sardine (Sardina pilchardus) in divisions 8.c and 9.a (Cantabrian Sea and Atlantic Iberian waters). In Report of the ICES Advisory Committee, 2019. ICES Advice 2019, pil.27.8c9a. Available at [Accessed on 20.02.2020].

ICES. 2019. Stock Annex: Southern Sardine stock Annex (Divisions 8.c and 9.a). Available at [Accessed on 20.02.2020].

ICES. 2019. Request from Portugal and Spain to evaluate a management and recovery plan for the Iberian sardine stock (divisions 8.c and 9.a). In Report of the ICES Advisory Committee, 2019. ICES Advice 2019, sr.2019.10. Available at [Accessed on 20.02.2020].

Tamman, M. 2018. Ocean Shock: Portugal mourns sardines' escape to cooler waters. Available at [Accessed on 20.02.2020].

Republica Portuguesa and Gobierno de Espana. 2018. Multiannual Management and Recovery Plan for the Iberian Sardine (2018-2023). Available at [Accessed on 20.02.2020].