Sprat, whitebait

Sprattus sprattus

Method of production — Caught at sea
Capture method — Pelagic trawl
Capture area — North East Atlantic (FAO 27)
Stock area — Baltic Sea
Stock detail — 3d.22-32
Picture of Sprat, whitebait

Sustainability rating three info

Sustainability overview

Updated: July 2019.

Sprat in the Baltic is at a healthy level but fishing pressure is above sustainable levels (MSY). The stock is shared between the EU and Russia, with joint agreements on catch limits. Sprat is short-lived and an important prey fish for many marine species, particularly cod, and the effects of the sprat fishery on these species is unknown. More could be done (i.e. a spatial management plan) to ensure that the main effort sprat fishery doesn’t overlap with areas where cod populations are high. There have been no reports of bycatch of endangered, threatened or protected species in recent years. Pelagic trawls do not regularly come into contact with the seabed, so there are few habitat impacts from this fishery.


Sprat belongs to the same family of fish (clupeids) as herring and pilchard. It is a pelagic inshore schooling species that can tolerate low salinities, sometimes entering estuaries. It can grow to a maximum size of 16 cm although most sprat landed are around 12 cm. Sprat become sexually mature between 8 - 12 cm and can spawn almost year around but predominantly spawn in spring and summer. Spawning occurs near the coast or up to 100 km out to sea and occurs at depths of 10 - 20 m. Sprat have an important role in the marine ecosystem, as a transformer of plankton at the bottom of the food chain to higher trophic or feeding levels, e.g. for cod, haddock, seabirds and marine mammals. Sprat are used predominantly in the production of fish meal, and used less for human consumption.

Stock information

Criterion score: 0.25 info

Stock Area

Baltic Sea

Stock information

The stock is in a very healthy state, although fishing pressure is too high.

The spawning-stock biomass (SSB) at spawning time in 2018 was 1,121,000t, well above MSY Btrigger (570,000t). Fishing mortality (F) has declined to 0.32, but has remained above FMSY (0.26) since 1994.

Recruitment tends to remain at a consistent level, with occasional large spikes roughly every 10 years. The recent increase in SSB is attributable to the strong year class of 2014, while the 2015-2018 year classes are estimated to be below or close to average.

ICES advises that when the EU Baltic Sea multiannual plan (MAP) is applied, catches in 2020 that correspond to the F ranges in the plan are between 169,965 tonnes and 233,704 tonnes. According to the MAP, catches higher than those corresponding to FMSY (225,786 tonnes) can only be taken under conditions specified in the MAP, whilst the entire range is considered precautionary when applying the ICES advice rule. This is a 25% decrease compared to last year’s advice, owing to a downward revision of SSB in the assessment and because the effect of the very strong 2014 year class will decrease in 2020.

There is some uncertainty in this assessment owing to species identification leading to potential misreporting of catches.


Criterion score: 0.5 info

This stock is shared between the EU and Russia, with a shared Total Allowable Catch (TAC) between the two parties. EU management is in the form of a multiannual plan (MAP) in for the Baltic Sea. The advice, based on the FMSY ranges used in the management plan, is considered precautionary. Russia does not have a management plan for this stock. TACs have often been set above advice. In 2018 catch was only 1% above the TAC. The 2019 TAC is split as follows: EU: 270,800t; Russian: 42,300t.

Not enough data has been provided by countries regarding discards, although undersize and low quality fish can be used in fishmeal and animal feed, and so they are likely to be low in industrial fisheries.

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

Criterion score: 0.25 info

Most of the catch is taken by pelagic trawlers in a mixed sprat-herring fishery, and the species composition of these catches is not always clear.

ICES recommends that a spatial management plan is considered for the fisheries that catch sprat, with the aim to improve the condition of cod stocks. Sprat and herring are important food items for cod, but the main distribution areas of these two species overlaps only a little with the main cod distribution areas (subdivisions 25-26). Therefore, any fishery on the two prey species within subdivisions 25-26 could decrease food availability to cod. The relative catch proportion of sprat in 25-26 has increased from 37% of the total catch in 2010 to 56% in 2012-2018.

There have been no reports of bycatch of endangered, threatened or protected species in recent years.

Pelagic trawls do not regularly come into contact with the seabed, so there are few habitat impacts from this fishery.

Spawning closures consist of two closed seasons (1-30 April in the Western Baltic, and 1 July to 31 August in the southern part of the Eastern Baltic), and three smaller areas in the Eastern Baltic which are closed 1 May to 31 October.


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


Casini, M et al. (2016). Hypoxic areas, density-dependence and food limitation drive the body condition of a heavily exploited marine fish predator. Royal Society Open Science, 3: 160416. 15 pp. doi: 10.1098/rsos.160416I
ICES. 2019. Baltic Fisheries Assessment Working Group (WGBFAS). ICES Scientific Reports. 1:20. 651 pp. doi: 10.17895/ices.pub.5256. Available at http://ices.dk/sites/pub/Publication%20Reports/Expert%20Group%20Report/Fisheries%20Resources%20Steering%20Group/2019/WGBFAS/1%20WGBFAS%202019.pdf [Accessed on 10.07.2019].

ICES. 2019. Sprat (Sprattus sprattus) in subdivisions 22-32 (Baltic Sea). In Report of the ICES Advisory Committee, 2019. ICES Advice 2019, spr.27.22-32, doi: 10.17895/ices.advice.4754. Available at http://www.ices.dk/sites/pub/Publication%20Reports/Advice/2019/2019/spr.27.22-32.pdf [Accessed on 10.07.2019].

Sustainable Fisheries Partnership (SFP). European sprat Baltic Sea. FishSource profile. In: FishSource [online]. Updated 20 August 2018. Available at https://www.fishsource.org/stock_page/1833 [Accessed 10.07.2019].