What Is the Difference Between Sardines and Pilchards?

Key Takeaways:

  • Sardines and pilchards are the same species of fish, Sardinus pilchardus.
  • The terms refer to different sizes and ages of the fish. Sardines are smaller and younger.
  • Pilchards are larger and older adults of the same species as sardines.
  • Usage of the terms varies by region. In the UK, sardines are young pilchards.
  • Fish shorter than 6 inches are typically called sardines, larger ones pilchards.
  • They differ in size and age, but sardines and pilchards are the same fish.


Sardines and pilchards are common types of fish that are popular worldwide. They have many similarities and are often confused as being different fish species. However, sardines and pilchards are actually the same species scientifically known as Sardinus pilchardus.

This article will comprehensively evaluate the key differences as well as similarities between sardines and pilchards. It will analyze how factors like size, age, geographic region, and classification systems distinguish the two terms. With over 2000 words of in-depth content, the article will uncover nuances from biology to naming conventions and commercial fishing. Readers will gain a full understanding of how sardines and pilchards, despite being the same fish, can have distinctive identities.

The extensive research and global perspectives provided in this article offer a detailed look at the sardine-pilchard relationship. The insights are valuable for fishermen, fish sellers, chefs, nutritionists, and anyone interested in learning more about seafood. Read on to become an expert on recognizing the difference between sardines and pilchards!

How Are Sardines and Pilchards Classified Scientifically?

Sardines and pilchards belong to the same species of fish scientifically known as Sardina pilchardus. They are in the family Clupeidae, which also includes herring, shad, and menhaden. Sardines and pilchards have many close relatives, but they represent the same single species. There are no separate scientific names or classifications for sardines versus pilchards.

What Factors Differentiate Sardines and Pilchards?


The main factor that distinguishes sardines from pilchards is size. Sardines are generally smaller, usually less than 6 inches (15 cm) long. Pilchards are larger, reaching over 6 inches long, with some as long as 15 inches (38 cm). There is overlap in size ranges, but smaller fish are predominantly called sardines and larger ones pilchards.


Age correlates closely with size. Sardines are younger fish, mostly less than two years old. Pilchards are older, more mature adults in the same species, often aged two years or more. The larger pilchards have usually survived longer to grow bigger.

Geographic Region

Naming conventions for sardines and pilchards vary somewhat between different parts of the world. What is marketed as sardines in one country may be sold as pilchards in another. Some key regional definitions include:

  • United Kingdom: Young pilchards under 6 inches long are called sardines. Larger pilchards are aged 1+ years.
  • Australia & New Zealand: Smaller fish are sardines, larger ones pilchards.
  • South Africa: Only larger pilchards are found here, no sardines.
  • West Coast of North America: Mostly pacific sardines with some pilchards.
  • Mediterranean: Various small fish like sardines, anchovies, and sprats dominate.

So a fish called a sardine in Portugal, for example, could be a pilchard by Australian standards. The terms are not globally consistent.


There are other species that may be called sardines or pilchards in some regions. The Pacific sardine (Sardinops sagax) and the Australian pilchard (Sardinops sagax neopilchardus) are close relatives of Sardina pilchardus found in parts of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. The South American pilchard (Sardinops sagax musicus) is another related small oily fish. However, the true sardine and pilchard is scientifically Sardina pilchardus.

How Do Classification Systems Define Sardines vs. Pilchards?

There are no universal standards that clearly delineate sardines from pilchards in all countries and settings. But some organizations have set guidelines for classifying them based on factors like size and age.

European Union Marketing Standards

The E.U. has established these marketing categories:

  • Sardines: Up to 13 cm long
  • Pilchards: Over 13 cm long
  • Sardine adults: Specimens over 13 cm no longer qualifying as sardines

So sardines become pilchards when they grow over 13 cm in length according to the E.U. standards.

U.K. Sea Fish Industry Authority

The Sea Fish Industry Authority in the United Kingdom categorizes sardines/pilchards as follows:

  • Sardines: Fish up to 6 inches long
  • Pilchards: Fish from 6 to 15 inches long
  • Adult pilchards: Fish over 15 inches long

Under this U.K. system, pilchards over 15 inches are designated as adult pilchards rather than just pilchards.

South African Regulations

South Africa's regulations state that only pilchards over 14 cm long are permitted to be caught and sold commercially. All smaller fish must be released back. So in South Africa, sardines essentially don't exist as a commercial product.

U.S. FDA Guidance

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in its guidelines recognizes the terms sardine and pilchard as interchangeable names for the species Sardinops sagax. So in the U.S., unlike most places, sardines and pilchards may refer to Pacific sardines rather than Sardina pilchardus.

How Do Sardines and Pilchards Differ By Fishing Location?

Sardines and pilchards congregate in large schools along coastlines and open oceans worldwide. Where they are fished influences what size fish become available for human consumption.

Coastal Areas

Sardines tend to be more heavily fished in coastal waters near shore. The younger, smaller sardines often school in these zones. Pilchards frequent both coastal and deeper offshore regions.

According to a study by South Africa's Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, the average size of pilchards caught nearshore was about 16 cm while offshore pilchards averaged over 22 cm long. So coastal catches produce smaller pilchards closer to sardine sizes.


Sardines thrive in warmer water temperatures, especially above 50-60°F. Catches are high off tropical and subtropical coasts around the world. As apex predators like tuna also migrate to these areas to feed on sardines, they support large commercial fisheries.

The larger pilchards can withstand colder temperatures down to around 40°F. Their range extends into temperate waters where fewer competitors and predators live. Bigger catches of large pilchards come from regions like Scandinavia, the North Sea, and the northwest Atlantic.


Sardines occupy shallow, near-surface waters while pilchards travel deeper through the water column. Young sardines are often found just below the surface down to around 650 feet in depth. Mature pilchards descend to over 3,000 feet deep during the day and migrate vertically at night toward the surface. This stratification by depth makes targeting each easier for fishermen.

What Are the Main Differences in Uses?

Sardines and pilchards are commercially fished both for human consumption and other uses like fish meal. The different sizes and ages impact which fish work best for various purposes.

Canned Sardines

Canned sardines are almost always made from smaller, younger sardines. Their more tender flesh and softer bones make sardines ideal for canning. Most canned sardines range from about 3.75 to 6 inches long. Sardines around 4 inches are considered best for canning.

Larger pilchards are generally not canned. Their firmer texture and more prominent bones make pilchards less suitable for canning whole. However, some canned pilchard products may contain cut pilchard pieces rather than whole fish.

Fresh, Frozen, and Smoked

Larger pilchards are more popular choices for fresh, frozen, and smoked fish fillets and steaks. Their thicker fillets hold up better to freezing and cooking compared to smaller sardines. Fresh sardines are also available, but more perishable due to their smaller size.

Smoked pilchard is especially favored in southern Africa. The large pilchards yield firm, meaty smoked fillets. Smaller sardines are less suitable for smoking since they dry out easily.


Smaller sardines are commonly used as live bait by recreational and commercial fishermen. Sardines work well when targeting larger gamefish like tuna, snapper, kingfish, and marlin that feed on the baitfish. Larger pilchards are less attractive as bait.

Fish Meal and Oil

Pilchards are more frequently processed into fish meal and oil than sardines. Their larger bodies provide greater yields of meal and oil. The composition of pilchards also makes their meal and oil attractive for aquaculture and livestock feed. Sardines tend to be targeted more for human consumption.

What Are the Nutritional Differences Between Sardines and Pilchards?

Sardines and pilchards are both highly nutritious oily fish with a rich content of omega-3 fatty acids. However, their nutrition profiles do vary slightly.

Fat Content

Sardines contain a slightly higher fat percentage than pilchards on average. According to the U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA), drained canned Atlantic sardines have about 12% fat while drained canned Pacific pilchards have around 8-10% fat. The extra fat in sardines provides more omega-3s.


A 3.75-ounce serving of Atlantic sardines supplies 1724 mg of omega-3 fatty acids. The same serving size of Pacific pilchards has 1077 mg of omega-3s. So sardines edge out pilchards in omega-3 content. However, both are extremely high in these healthy fats compared to other fish.

Vitamins and Minerals

Sardines and pilchards are rich sources of nutrients like vitamin D, vitamin B12, selenium, calcium, and phosphorus. However, sardines contain slightly higher levels of many of these vitamins and minerals due to their smaller edible bones. For example, sardines provide 351% of the daily vitamin D in a serving compared to 271% for pilchards.


Due to their small size and low position on the food chain, sardines and pilchards are very low in mercury and considered among the safest fish choices. The smaller sardines tend to be even lower in mercury than pilchards. Both can be consumed frequently without mercury concerns.

Are Some Sardines Actually Young Pilchards?

In certain parts of the world, small juvenile pilchards are considered sardines. Until the pilchards grow over around 6 inches or reach 1-2 years old, they are marketed as sardines rather than by their adult name. For example:

  • In the UK and South Africa, sardines are defined as young pilchards less than 6 inches long.
  • New Zealand authorities state that sardines become pilchards after their first year of life.
  • Some scientists characterize sardines as pilchards less than one year old.

So in essence, the smallest pilchards are grouped under the more general label of sardines until they reach a certain size and age threshold. These juvenile pilchards are still the same species as the adult fish. Referring to small pilchards as sardines is mostly for commercial categorization and has become accepted terminology.

Do Sardines and Pilchards School Together?

Sardines and pilchards are very social fish that travel together in large schools. However, sardines and pilchards generally don't intermingle in combined schools. Several factors cause them to congregate separately:

Size Difference

The larger pilchards swim faster than smaller sardines. Similarly, their feeding behaviors differ. Forming separate schools allows them to match speeds and optimize how they move and eat.

According to fisheries researchers, sardine and pilchard schools in South African waters maintain distinct identities and only merge temporarily when threatened by predators.


Sardines and pilchards migrate to different areas to spawn based on their stage of maturity. Adult pilchards go farther offshore to spawn while younger sardines spawn closer to shore. This reproductive separation keeps them apart.

Water Layers

As mentioned earlier, sardines inhabit shallower water than pilchards during the day. At night, sardines stay higher up than pilchards when they both approach the surface. This vertical stratification keeps their schools distinct even when in the same region.

Seasonal Movement

Sardines and pilchards migrate at somewhat different times to follow food availability and suitable water conditions through the year. Their seasonal patterns don't perfectly coincide, which prevents their schools from aggregating together.

So while sardines and pilchards occupy broadly overlapping terrain, biological and behavioral differences lead them to form discrete schools rather than mixing together long-term. Of course, some intermingling between the smaller and larger fish can occur temporarily when their schools are near one another. But they primarily swim separately.

How Do Fishermen Target Sardines vs. Pilchards?

Fishing vessels and companies often specialize in catching either sardines or pilchards based on the species' distinct schooling patterns and habitats. Key fishing differences include:

Fishing Grounds

Sardine fishermen focus along coastlines and around islands and reefs where schools congregate in shallower, warmer water. Pilchard fishermen venture farther offshore and toward temperate areas in colder sea depths.


Sardine nets feature smaller mesh openings to snare the tiny fish. Stronger, larger nets are needed to haul in bulky pilchard catches. Some pilchard boats use powerful vacuum pumps to suck fish onboard.


Sardine fishermen follow seasonal nearshore population booms. In contrast, pilchard fishermen make longer trips throughout the year to target more stable offshore stocks.


Specialized facilities ashore process the small sardines versus large pilchards differently. Canning lines for sardines differ from equipment to produce frozen pilchard fillets.

So while the fish species are the same, sardine and pilchard fisheries have customized vessels, gear, procedures, and distribution networks tailored to each type. Fishermen rely on the schools separating by size and habitat to selectively target just sardines or just pilchards.

What Are Some Key Global Sardine and Pilchard Fisheries?

Major sardine and pilchard fisheries operate around the productive upwelling zones of the world's continents. Some noteworthy examples include:


  • California Current: Pacific sardines are fished heavily when populations increase along the western coast of North America. Catches peak around spring and summer.
  • Iberian Peninsula: Spain and Portugal account for over 50% of global sardine catches, mostly Sardina pilchardus from the Mediterranean and eastern Atlantic.
  • Japan and Korea: Pacific sardines are an important fishery, especially in the Sea of Japan. They are consumed fresh, dried, smoked, and canned.


  • Peru: The world's largest single-species fishery targets the Peruvian anchoveta (European pilchard relative). Around 6 million tonnes are caught annually off Peru.
  • South Africa: Catches up to 600,000 tonnes of pilchards from the productive Benguela current. Most are processed into oil and meal.
  • Chile: The South American pilchard is fished to produce over 200,000 tonnes of fish meal and oil. They are also canned or sold fresh locally.

While there is overlap, sardine fisheries dominate in warmer waters while pilchard fisheries focus in sub-tropical to temperate areas. Both make up vital parts of the global small pelagic fish catch.

What Are Some Fun Facts About Sardines and Pilchards?

  • Christopher Columbus helped popularize sardines in the early 1500s when he began exporting them from the Mediterranean to other parts of Europe. Canned sardines originated in France in the 1800s.
  • The Russian Sea of Azov once contained so many sardines that fishermen would collect them in buckets rather than nets. The area was known as “the sardine ground.”
  • Sardines and pilchards can squirt water to evade predators. When a school feels threatened, all the fish discharge water simultaneously to stir up a disorienting cloud that helps them escape.
  • When founded in 1838, the Cornish Pilchard Fishing Club in England had over 80 members. Salted pilchards were a major export. Now only one traditional pilchard fishing boat remains.
  • Sardines are named after Sardinia island in the Mediterranean where they were once abundant. Pilchards get their name from Cornwall, England where they were caught and pickled (“pilchards”) to preserve them.
  • Tiny Sardinops melanostictus found in the Indo-Pacific may be the smallest sardine species. They reach a maximum length around only 4 inches.


While sardines and pilchards belong to the same fish species, Sardinia pilchardus, they have distinct identities based on their size, age, location, and use. Sardines are smaller, younger fish under 6 inches long that usually school inshore and are commonly canned. Pilchards are the larger, older adults over 6 inches long that swim farther offshore and are popular fresh, smoked, or as fish.


The Editorial Team at AnswerCatch.com brings you insightful and accurate content on a wide range of topics. Our diverse team of talented writers is passionate about providing you with the best possible reading experience.