Osmerus eperlanus


Smelt are shoaling fish, distantly related to the salmon.  They live in the salty water of estuaries and around the mouths of rivers.  During May to August the smelt come upriver to spawn in fresh water before then returning to the sea.

Smelt are silvery-green in colour and usually around 20cm long, although they can grow to twice that length.

Threats to smelt populations include pollution and overfishing – smelt was once a delicacy and is now fished for pike bait. Smelt are also threatened by the loss of their habitat, especially spawning grounds, which may be destroyed by silting or construction.  They may also be prevented from reaching their spawning grounds because of weirs or other barriers. 

Most of the recorded populations in Scotland are now extinct, as are a third of those from estuaries in England and Wales. Populations can recover in areas where several estuaries interconnect, as one can restock another.  However, once smelt have become locally extinct from isolated estuaries (such as the Tyne), they will not return.


Other common names

European smelt

Rainbow smelt

Sand smelt

Sea smelt



European distribution

Smelt are found throughout Western Europe and breed in a number of English rivers but are rare in Scotland and Wales.


Conservation status/need

  • Smelt FactThis is a UK BAP Priority Species (BAP species are now Species of Principal Importance/Priority Species).
  • Species of principal importance for the purpose of conservation of biodiversity under the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006.


Further information

European Environment Agency


Marine Life Information Network

Marine Species Identification Portal

Natural England Research Report - "The status of smelt (Osmerus eperlanus) in England)"

World Register of Marine Species

JNCC - UK BAP Priority Species and Habitats