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Cornish Sardine by Sarah McCartney


Delicious silvery fish. Cornish sardines are fabulous barbequed or grilled. They are high in omega 3 oils and are very good for you as well! Tiny soft bones can be easily chewed up and eaten. 

Sustainability Overview

Cornish sardines, traditionally known as pilchards but rebranded in the 1990's as sardines, are caught in inshore waters by ring netters.  Ring nets are a modern take on a purse seine net,  a large wall of net with small mesh size which encircles a shoal of sardines and then is drawn in  and fish are scooped or pumped out of the net into iced holds. The quality of the fish is high.  The fleet of Cornish ring netters has increased  rapidly in size and now there are 14 under 15metre vessels fishing for sardines in Cornish waters, each capable of catching up to 36 tonnes per night of fishing. Stock levels of sardines in our area are healthy and this is backed up by an annual survey carried out by CEFAS which shows that stocks are increasing. 
An organisation called the Cornwall Sardine Management Group exsists. This membership group, which now  includes all the boats involved, set a levey that has allowed them to pay for Marine Stewardship council accreditation for the fishery. Always choose MSC accredited Cornish sardines. 
In 2021 a total of 6342 tonnes of sardines were landed to Cornish ports with a value of £1.9 million (MMO data).
Updated July 2023

Sustainability ratings for this species

Ring Netting

Cornish vessels landing to Cornish ports

Ring nets are encircling nets used to catch midwater fish such as sardine, and anchovy. They are set around a shoal and a drawstring rope on the bottom of the net is pulled so the fish can’t escape.

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How we rate fish

Cornwall Good Seafood Guide rates fish on sustainability using a scale of 1 to 5.

1, 2 and 3 are recommended, Fish to avoid are rated 5.

We use the system devised by the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) so our scores are comparable with the scores produced by MCS for the UK and fisheries from all around the world. For more information on scoring click here.


Sardines (also known as Pilchard) are small silvery fish related to herring that shoal in mid water around the Cornish coast (at the Northern end of their natural range).They live at 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. Sardines are mature at a length of around 15 cm. They spawn in batches in spring and summer in the open sea or near the coast, producing 50,000-60,000 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. They feed on planktonic crustaceans such as copepods. The main season for the fishery is August to January although they are sometimes caught outside this period.

Stock Info

Sardine stocks in the Western Channel and Celtic sea are studied by the CEFAS PELTIC survey. This Annual survey asseses the size of the sardine, anchovy and several other pelagic stocks in the area. Stocks of sardines in recent years have been shown to be very healthy but fluctuating. In 2022 the estimated stock size rose to 336306 tonnes from an estimate of 212,772 tonnes in 2021.
In 2021 this stock was benchmarked by ICES and now annual advice is provided by ICES which, and now includes reference points for Maximum Sustainable Yield. Therefore, this rating moves from a Route 2 (data limited) method to Route 1.  In 2022 the Peltic survey was not sucessfully completed due to technical difficulties however the data collected showed that there is no concern for stock and that the stock has appeared to have increased.  As a result of the lower quality of data in this year Route 2 scoring had to be used resulting in a stock score of 0.25, which hasnt affected the overall rating for sardine.
The stock assessment indicates that biomass (B) has been consistently higher than the level associated with maximum sustainable yield (BMSY) since 2018. In 2021, it is roughly 140% of the BMSY level. Therefore, the stock is not in an overfished state. 
Fishing pressure (F) has been below the level associated with maximum sustainable yield (FMSY) since 2014. In 2021, it is approximately 50% of FMSY. Therefore, the stock is not subject to overfishing.
ICES advises that when the precautionary approach is applied, catches in 2022 should be no more than  8306 tonnes. 
According to Seafish Risk Assessment for sourcing seafood the sardine fishery has a moderate score for stock,and managment and a high score for by catch risk due to the risk of accidental by catch of marine mammals and seabirds.  Landings have increasd dramatically over the past ten years see graph below with increased numbers of vessels joining the fishery In 2016 landing were higher than 5000 tonnes. In 2020 total landings by the Cornish Sardine Managment association was 8787 tonnes.  It is estimated that the total landings from CMSA and other nations that fish in the area pelagically will be well below sustainable limits, > 20% of stock.  In Feb 2021 this stock was benchmarked by ICES. 



The Cornish sardine fishery is carried out within the 6 mile limit CIFCA district. Small mesh nets are used so that sardines will not be damaged by the net. Vessels fishing with ring nets are limited by CIFCA by laws to a maximum length of 18.23m.
The Cornish Sardine Management Group record catches. There is no legal cap on quanties being caught but the managment group seeks to maintain the demand for sardines by controlling landings to prevent oversupply that could affect prices. Apart from these voluntary marketing measures there is no official quota on sardine catches in Cornwall. The voluntary landing cap currently in force is 10,000 tonnes which to date has not significantly limited the fishing effort of the fleet of 15 vessels that are part of the fishery. An improvement in 2022 saw an agreement by CSMA and MSC that the annual quota would be assessed by CEFAS and approved - this is a positive step as it should result in future prevention of commercial interests resulting in catch limits that could harm the stocks. This has resulted in an improved managment score of 0.5.
Stocks move between Cornwall and Brittany and in Brittany the sardine fishery (which is far larger) is now managed and has a limit on vessel numbers and catch quotas.  The Cornish sardine management group record their catches in detail and are monitored through the MSC accreditation process. 
Sardines from the same stock are caught by other nationalities and the total catch during 2020 in area seven was 13,553tonnes. the uk fleet caught 9500 tonnes in that year, and 8787 tonnes were landed to cornish ports by ring netters. Current ICES advice is that a maximum of 6906 tonnes should be caught by UK boats in 2022.

Capture Info

The majority of sardines caught in Cornish waters are caught using ring nets. Similar to the larger purse seine nets these are used to encircle shoals of sardines that have been located using echo sounding equipment by the skippers. Shoals are found using sonar. The net which is up to 440 meters long and 50 meters deep is shot around part of the shoal. If a shoal is drawn in close to the boat and the skipper realizes is it a lower value species than expected or the catch is too large it is common for the shoal to be ‘slipped’, i.e. the nets are opened and some of the fish are  released – if the fish are not too crowded in the net many will survive this but delicate pelagic fish are not good at coping with stress and sometimes large numbers will not survive. The CFP discards ban means that pelagic discards will have to be landed. It is possible to net a shoal that is too large to land into the boat. Once the hold is full the remainder of the catch has to be released although this is avoided where ever possible. By this point it is highly unlikley that fragile sardines will survive being released. Over the past decade there have been several events where dead sardines were released, and they later washed ashore. This is a relatively rare event and is usually due to gear failure or fishers putting the net around more fish than they can cope with. To minimise this happening the CSMA trains skippers on best practice and fishers will work together, sharing fish where necessary to reduce the chance of dead fish being discarded.  Ring nets have little contact with the sea bed although there are concerns about the potential damage to fragile seabed habitats such as seagrass beds. In other parts of the world there have been issues with cetacean and seal bycatch in purse seine fisheries and there is growing evidence that cetaceans (particularly common dolphin) do occasionally interact with ring nets. Atlantic bluefin tuna are also known to occassionally get caught. As they tend to dive to try to escape they rarely survive. Find out more about sardine fishing in this article. 


ICES advice Sardine Celtic sea and English Channel 2023
CEFAS PELTIC Survey 2020
CEFAS PELTIC Survey 2019
Seafish RASS profile for Sardines in ICES sub area VII 
MSC progress report 
Project inshore pre assessment database
Fisheries Science Partnership: 2010/11
CEFAS Sardine and anchovy off Southwest England
2011 Jeroen van der Kooij, Bill Mulligan, Damien Delaunay,
and Beatriz A. Roel
MMO landings data.

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