What Kind of Fish Are Sardines?

Definitions for sardines vary by location. Many species of small fish are called sardines and may be sold in stores. However, true sardines are a particular species of fish.
What Kind of Fish Are Sardines?

When you hear about sardines, you probably think of tiny, briny fish sitting in a teeny tiny rectangular tin.  However, there’s a lot more to it than that! The term sardine can refer to a number of different species of fish. All of these species of fish are in the herring family, Clupeidae, but not all species of herring are true sardines. 

Definitions for sardines vary by location. Many species of small fish are called sardines and may be sold in stores. However, true sardines are a particular species of fish.

What Is a True Sardine?

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Health Organization have created the “Codex Alimentarius” to create codes for food standards. This is generally considered the international standard for defining food standards based on nutrition, origin, contamination, labeling, and much more.

What Kind of Fish Are Sardines?

The FAO’s document on sardines lists 22 species of fish that are considered “sardine type products.” However, these guidelines specify that the term “sardines” with no qualification refers exclusively to the species Sardina pilchardus. This species (also referred to as the European Pilchard) lives exclusively in the Northeast Atlantic Ocean as well as the Mediterranean, Black, and Adriatic Seas. 

The genus Sardina is monotypic, meaning Sardina pilchardus is the only species in this genus. Though other sardines are in the same family as the true sardine, none are within the same genus. Some taxonomists consider this species to include multiple subspecies, but they are not well established. This distinction highlights how unique true sardines are. They are genetically very distinct from other species sold as sardines.

What’s in a Word?

The name sardine likely comes from the island Sardinia in the Mediterranean. Sardina pilchardus was once abundant around this island. The term has been used since the early 15th century to refer to these fish. 

While many other species are often called “sardine,” the origins of the name make the particular species obvious. The true sardine is most commonly found in the Mediterranean and the Northeastern Atlantic ocean. Sardines from this region are the real deal!

What Kind of Fish Are Sardines?; mediterranean coast

Pacific Sardines

While true sardines only live in the Atlantic Ocean, other species are often sold as sardines. One example is the “Pacific Sardine” or Sardinops sagax caerulea. This species is also referred to as the California Sardine or the California Pilchard. 

This species was once the most abundant fish in the California Current. Commercial fishing of this species is now prohibited due to a low population. This species has been overfished and is no longer a sustainable food source. 

So if you come across a can labeled “Pacific Sardines” you should think to yourself, “this sounds fishy.”

What Else Is Labeled “Sardines”?

While there are many products on the market labeled as sardines, not all contain Sardina pilchardus. Other members of the herring family, Clupeidae, are also sold as sardines.

In addition to Sardina pilchardus the Food and Agriculture Organization includes the following species as sardine type products.

  • Sardinops melanostictus
  • S. neopilchardus
  • S. ocellatus
  • S. sagax
  • S. caeruleus
  • Sardinella aurita
  • S. brasiliensis
  • S. maderensis
  • S. longiceps
  • S. gibbosa 
  • Clupea harengus
  • Clupea bentincki
  • Sprattus sprattus
  • Hyperlophus vittatus
  • Nematalosa vlaminghi
  • Etrumeus teres
  • Ethmidium maculatum
  • Engraulis anchoita
  • E. mordax
  • E. ringens
  • Opisthonema oglinum

Though all of these species may include “sardines” on their label, they are not true sardines. These species are all types or herring but vary substantially in flavor, quality, and sustainability.

Small Fisheries Matter

There are many varieties of sardines from different regions, species, and companies. It is important to consider the source when shopping for fish. Quality varies greatly from different sources. 

What Kind of Fish Are Sardines?; Fishery in Portugal

Choosing fish produced by small villages in non-industrial areas makes a huge difference in quality and sustainability. Here at Tin Can Fish we pride ourselves on selling only the highest quality fish. Our brands are carefully curated to provide a selection of products that you can trust. 

We are proud to sell true sardines that are sustainably sourced. Our products are also held to the highest quality standards to ensure that we are selling the most delicious and healthy sardines available.

Written by Casey Hofford on February 17, 2020.