There may be bigger fish to fry, but now small sprat are big on sustainability!

Date posted: 6 October 2017

Marine Conservation Society gives these hardy little fish from the Baltic a green Good Fish Guide rating

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The Marine Conservation Society (MCS) has improved its rating of sprat from the Baltic Sea by giving it a green rating in the latest version of the charity’s Good Fish Guide published online today ( It means they’re at their most sustainable for 20 years.

Sprat from the Baltic are now a ‘Best Choice’, with a rating of 1 meaning they can be consumed guilt free.

Bernadette Clarke, MCS Good Fish Guide Manager says: “We should be eating more oily fish like sprat, not only are they good for our health but sprat from the Baltic is now an environmentally friendly choice too. Sprat are a really nutritious, yet affordable, fish choice and although their appeal seems to have waned in recent years, this positive rating should see them getting back on restaurant menu in their own right.”

But although it’s great news, it also raises some fundamental seafood questions – what exactly are sprat? Have I ever eaten them? Would I know a sprat if saw one?

Sprat (sprattus sprattus) belong to the same family as herrings and sardines. They’re small oily fish which contain omega-3 fatty acids which are known to be good for our heart health. On average sprat don’t mature until they’re about 11cm in length and only grow to about 16cm. A rough belly sets sprat apart from other similar small fish.

Cooked under a hot grill, served with pepper and a squeeze of lemon, you can eat them up, heads and all, without the need for a knife and fork. But you’re more likely to have had them under the catch-all term of ‘whitebait’.

Mature sprat are a more sustainable alternative to traditional mixed whitebait, which isn’t actually a specific species at all and (depending on where you are) can be a mixture of juvenile fish such as herring, sprat and sandeel, hence the longstanding confusion about sprat vs whitebait!

Freelance food writer, Mike Warner, grew up on the Suffolk coast and is a big fan of sprat: “When it comes to pelagic fish, we seem to have lost the art of eating them in the UK, even though they are so seasonally abundant. Oily fish such as sprats can not only be a delicious and sustainably-caught source of wild protein and unsaturated fats, but their health, nutritional and well-being benefits, coupled with affordability, make them a true superfood. We just need to raise consumer awareness and get people eating them again”.

Mike’s recipe for Devilled sprats can be found on the Good Fish Guide

MCS says the improved rating for Baltic sprat has come about because the fishing mortality has dropped to levels that are sustainable in the long term and is the first time fishing pressure has been below this level in over 20 years.

What’s whitebait then?

In the UK, whitebait dates back to 1612 but it didn’t become popular until the 1780s when it was so popular that water taxis would have races to ferry MPs from the Houses of Parliament to Greenwich – the centre of whitebait consumption!

In 1903, early studies on whitebait boxes being sold from Billingsgate to the Thames-side pub market revealed they contained up to 23 species of juvenile fish including the fry of eel, plaice, whiting, herring, sprat, bass and even some crabs, octopus & jellyfish!

Nowadays, a lot of ‘whitebait’ being sold in the UK is in fact sprat, but it it’s important to check to ensure you’re not still getting a mix of juvenile fish.

Now it’s a popular restaurant starter and one of the only ways that the UK market consumes fish from top to tail.

The latest version of the MCS Good Fish Guide has also seen improved ratings for Irish Sea cod, haddock and plaice and hand-lined pollack from the south west.

North Sea cod and haddock from North Sea, West of Scotland and Skagerrak have also seen improvements due to the latest stock assessments showing increases in biomass.

Haddock from the Irish Sea is now a green rated, ‘Best Choice’ due to an improving spawning stock biomass and declining fishing mortality and hand lined pollack from the south west is another ‘Best Choice’ option – this is great news as it’s a fantastic alternative to the go-to favourites of cod and haddock.

41% of fish stocks in the northeast Atlantic and waters around the UK however, are still being overfished and MCS says it’s vital that the public, chefs, retailers and fish buyers keep referring to the Good Fish Guide Fish website, the Pocket Good Fish Guide or the app version on iPhone or android, to ensure they have the most up-to-date sustainable seafood advice.

MCS sustainable seafood work is supported by players of People’s Postcode Lottery.

Clara Govier, Head of Charities at People’s Postcode Lottery says: “It is great to see consumers using their power by making the right choices on which seafood to eat. However you access it, the Good Fish Guide gives instant advice on what to eat and how to cook it, whether you’re shopping for the family in the supermarket or looking for a place to eat out. I’m delighted that players of People’s Postcode Lottery are able to support this initiative.”


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