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 — 3b-d (subdivisions 22-32)
Picture of Sprat, whitebait

Sustainability rating three info

Sustainability overview

Updated: June 2020.

Sprat in the Baltic is at a very 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. The full effects of the sprat fishery on these species is unknown. More could be done (i.e. spatial management plan) to ensure that the main effort in the sprat fishery doesn’t overlap with areas where cod populations are high, as cod depend on sprat as prey. There have been no reports of bycatch of endangered, threatened or protected species in recent years. However, there may be bycatch of Western Baltic Spring Spawning (WBSS) herring, which is recommended to have zero catch in 2020 as the stock is at critical levels. 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

The stock is in a healthy state, but fishing pressure is above sustainable levels.

The spawning-stock biomass (SSB) has shown a decreasing trend over the past 5 years, declining ~20%, from 1,090,000 tonnes in 2016 to 873,000 tonnes in 2020, but, it is still well above the maximum sustainable yield biomass trigger point (MSY Btrigger) of 570,000 tonnes. In 2020 the ratio of B:BMSY was 1.53. Fishing pressure has been rising since 2014, catches have increased ~22%, from 244,000 tonnes in 2014 to 314,000 tonnes in 2019. Fishing mortality (F) was 0.38 in 2020, but remains above FMSY (0.31) since 1997. In 2019 the ratio of F:FMSY was 1.23. Recruitment (R) has remained fairly stable over the last 5 years. R in 2020 was significantly larger than that of the 2016-2019 year classes and the long-term average. The increase in SSB in 2016–2017 is attributable to the strong year class of 2014. The 2015–2018 year classes are below or close to average, while the 2019 year class is above average.

ICES advises that when the EU multiannual plan (MAP) for the Baltic Sea is applied, catches in 2021 that correspond to the F ranges in the plan are between 181,567 tonnes and 316,833 tonnes. According to the MAP, catches higher than those corresponding to FMSY (247,952 tonnes) can only be taken under conditions specified in the MAP, whilst the entire range is considered precautionary when applying the ICES advice rule. The advised catches have increased compared to the advice for 2020 due to the updated FMSY reference points from an interbenchmark, which are now higher than previously used, despite the downward revision in SSB.

Species misreporting of sprat has occurred in the past and there are indications of sprat being misreported as herring. These effects have not been quantified, however, it leads to some uncertainty in the assessment and it may affect the revision in SSB and F over time.


Criterion score: 0.5 info

There are management measures in place for this fishery which are partly effective in managing this stock.

The stock is shared between the EU and Russia, and covered by the EU Baltic Sea Multi Annual Management Plan (MAP). MAP advice is considered to be precautionary. However, Russia does not have a management plan for this stock. Although the MAP has not been adopted by Russia, joint Total Allowable Catches (TACs) are agreed between the two parties.

TACs over the last 5 years have been set in line or close to advice, and were on average set 6% above advice (2015-2020). In 2020 the TAC was set 10% above the catch advice. Compliance with TAC is high and catches are on average 100% of the agreed TAC (2015-2019).

Fishing pressure (F) has been above the maximum sustainable yield (FMSY) since the early 2000’s. However, it is important to acknowledge that a very abundant spat population could be ecologically harmful, as there are no cod stocks in the northern zones, which is a predatory species for sprat, to reduce the size of the population within the area. Sprat competes efficiently with herring populations and very abundant sprat population may even eat cod eggs and thus affect negatively to the situations of weak cod stocks. Thus, the reduction in the spawning-stock biomass over the past few years, could be beneficial to both the herring and cod stocks which are currently in a worse state within the area. ICES recommends a spatial management plan should be considered for the fisheries that catch sprat, with the aim to improve the conditions cod stocks.

Discarding is considered negligible.

Unlike the herring fishery, the sprat fishery is not managed by a minimum landing size within the fishing area.

The UK is due to leave the EU on 31st December 2020, and new UK Fisheries legislation is being developed during 2020. MCS will update ratings with new management information when new legislation comes into force.

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: 0.5 info

Sprat are caught by pelagic trawls in the Sound and Belt Sea or the Transition Area and the Baltic Sea.

Bycatch may include Western Baltic Spring Spawning (WBSS) herring as the two fisheries within the region overlap. WBSS herring is recommended to have zero catch in 2020 as the stock is at critical levels and it is possible that bycatch of herring from the sprat fishery in subdivisions 22-24, could be contributing to WBSS population declines or preventing recovery.

The sprat fishery is carried out all year but the main fishing season is in the first half of the year in most countries. In the northern part of the Baltic, ice cover is a limiting factor for all fishing operations.

Baltic sprat is generally fished by two types of fleets, small cutters (17–24 m length) and medium size cutters (25–27 m length). In some countries a third type of vessel is engaged in sprat fishery (large vessels over 40 m length). The large vessels have trawls with high vertical opening and operate in the areas deeper than 50 m. Most of the catch is taken by pelagic single and pair trawlers in a mixed sprat-herring fishery, the species composition of these catches is not always clear. The fishery uses a mesh size of 16 mm in the codend. Demersal trawlers also participate in sprat catch, although the fishery is negligible in comparison to the pelagic trawling fishery within the area.

The pelagic sprat fishery has little impact upon the seabed, although seabed contact does sometimes occur. Closed areas are established, which are mostly seasonal and in small localised areas, to protect spawning and juvenile herring. Pelagic trawls can be associated with bycatch of marine mammals but there have been no reports of bycatch of endangered, threatened or protected species in recent years. This fishery may bycatch WBSS herring, a stock which ICES advices zero catch because the stock size is so low. The low WBSS stock can have implications for predators, including cod and seals.

As the fisheries in this area also take herring, species misreporting of sprat has occurred in the past, and there are indications of sprat being misreported as herring. Recent legislation has forced catches to be sorted before landing, but the approach to this has been variable and might need further exploration. National regulation (e.g. in Russia) fleets are obliged to use sorting machines to separate herring from sprat. The fleet targets sprat for human consumption during 1st and 2nd quarters of the year. During summer the fleet targets sprat for reduction purposes and bycatches of small herring increases. Incidental catch of non-target species (bycatch) is thought to be low. Where incidental catch does occur species include herring, which may include WBSS herring in sub-divisions 3c.22, 3b.23 and 3d.24. The level of WBSS bycatch in this fishery is presently unknown. Small herring bycatch increases during the summer months, as the fleet move on to target sprat for reduction purposes in the second half of the year. Increases in small herring bycatch follows on from the WBSS spring spawning season. As the fishery is mostly concentrated within the central and north-eastern parts of the fishing area, WBSS bycatch levels may be low, but any WBSS bycatch is of serious concern for the stock. A spatial management plan should be considered for the sprat fishery to prevent WBSS herring bycatch where the two fisheries overlap. The bycatch level of other species such as juvenile cod is unknown. Currently, the eastern cod stock is concentrated in sub-divisions 25-26 and shows poor growth conditions, most likely due to the lack of food. This may be related to low abundance of sprat in this area which is a prey species. Closures of the herring and sprat fisheries in areas where cod are more abundant could help mitigate this issue.

ICES recommends that a spatial management plan is considered for the fisheries that catch sprat, with the aim to improve the conditions of cod stocks. The distribution of sprat has shifted considerably towards the north-eastern areas of the Baltic Sea and surveys have revealed low abundances of sprat in the southern Baltic. The abundance of cod in subdivisions 25–26 (southern Baltic) is high compared to other areas in the Baltic. The overlap of cod and sprat stocks is much lower than previously and the condition of the cod stocks are considered to be limited by food availability. Sprat and herring are important food items for cod (especially sprat) and both prey stocks have a broader distribution in the Baltic than cod. The relative proportion of sprat caught in the main cod distribution area has increased over the past decade, from 37% of the total catch in 2010 to 58% in 2019. This sprat fishery in the overlap area with cod is potentially decreasing the local sprat density in the main cod distribution area (sub-divisions 25–26), which in turn may lead to increased food deprivation for cod. Thus, restrictions established for sprat fisheries in the main cod distribution area would result in the increased availability of clupeid prey, which could ultimately benefit the cod stock. However, several other factors also have an impact on the cod stock.


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
Horse Mackerel, Scad
Kingfish, yellowtail
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

EU (2016). Regulation (EU) 2016/1139 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 6 July 2016 establishing a multiannual plan for the stocks of cod, herring and sprat in the Baltic Sea and the fisheries exploiting those stocks. Available at https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=CELEX:32016R1139 [Accessed 29.06.2020]

Froese, R. and Pauly, D. (Editors). 2020. Sprattus sprattus European Sprat. Available at https://www.fishbase.se/Summary/SpeciesSummary.php?ID=1357&AT=sprat [Accessed 20.04.2020]

Horbowy, J. (2020). Stock Annex: Sprat (Sprattus sprattus) in subdivisions 22–32 (Baltic Sea). Available at http://www.ices.dk/sites/pub/Publication%20Reports/Stock%20Annexes/2020/spr.27.22-32_SA.pdf [Accessed 30.06.2020]

ICES (2019). EU request to report on the implementation of the Baltic Sea Multiannual Plan. Available at http://www.ices.dk/sites/pub/Publication%20Reports/Expert%20Group%20Report/Fisheries%20Resources%20Steering%20Group/2020/ICES%20WGBFAS%202020%20Report.pdf [Accessed 30.06.2020]

ICES (2019). Working Group on Multispecies Assessment Methods (WGSAM). ICES Scientific Reports, 1 (91), 320 pp. Doi: http://doi.org/10.17895/ices.pub.5758. Available at http://www.ices.dk/sites/pub/Publication%20Reports/Expert%20Group%20Report/HAPISG/2019/Working%20Group%20on%20Multispecies%20Assessment%20Methods%20(WGSAM).pdf [Accessed 30.06.2020]

ICES (2020). Baltic Fisheries Assessment Working Group (WGBFAS). ICES Scientific Reports, 2 (45). Doi: http://doi.org/10.17895/ices.pub.6024. Available at http://www.ices.dk/sites/pub/Publication%20Reports/Expert%20Group%20Report/Fisheries%20Resources%20Steering%20Group/2020/ICES%20WGBFAS%202020%20Report.pdf [Accessed 30.06.2020]

ICES (2020). Sprat (Sprattus sprattus) in subdivisions 22–32 (Baltic Sea). In Report of the ICES Advisory Committee, 2020. ICES Advice 2020, spr.27.22-32. Doi: https://doi.org/10.17895/ices.advice.5879 . Available at http://ices.dk/sites/pub/Publication%20Reports/Advice/2020/2020/spr.27.22-32.pdf [Accessed 30.06.2020]