Mackerel vs. Sardines: What Are The Differences?

School of sardines swimming from left to right
© Dennis Forster/

Written by Kyle Glatz

Updated: January 13, 2023

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The oceans are filled with many different types of fish that humans consume in great numbers. Mackerel and sardines are some of the most popular fish on the market today. Some of the smaller fish that are taken from the waters in massive quantities look so much alike or are served in the same ways that it can be hard to differentiate them. Our goal today is to look at mackerel vs. sardines and show you several ways that they’re unique compared to one another.

For the sake of this comparison, we’re going to focus on information about the Atlantic mackerel. That way, we can illustrate the differences in a more specific manner.

Comparing Mackerel and Sardines

SizeWeight: 1.5-2.2 pounds on average, up to 7.5 lbs.
Length: 10-16.6 inches for Atlantic mackerel, up to 26 inches
Weight: 0.2-4.5 ounces
Length: 6-15.6 inches
Morphology– Torpedo-shaped body
– Forked tail
– Two dorsal fins and two anal fins
– Finlets behind the dorsal and anal fins
– Green-blue body with stripes on the top, and light coloring on the bottom
– Small fish with an elongated, flat body
– No scales on the head
– Silvery color
– Single dorsal fin
– Finlets near tail
– Forked tail
Diet– Krill, copepods, shrimp, and other small crustaceans– Zooplankton, phytoplankton, crustacean eggs, decapods, and fish eggs
Scientific Families– Belongs to the family Scombridae
–  True mackerel belong to the Scombrini tribe, including the genera Scomber and Rastrelliger
– One of the most popular species is Scomber scombrus, the Atlantic mackerel
– From family Clupeidae
– From genera Sardina, Dussumieria, Escualosa, Sardinops, and Sardinella 
Uses– Low in mercury in some species, but others, like king mackerel, are high in mercury
– Smoked, salted, and served fresh
– Often fried in oil, made into soup, or roasted and served with vegetables
– Has a strong taste
– Low in mercury
– Canned
– Served whole and fresh
– Baked into pies
– Frequently smoked and then served

The 5 Key Differences Between Mackerel vs. Sardines


Mackerel have torpedo-shaped bodies and are larger than sardines.


The biggest differences between mackerel and sardines can be found in their size and morphology. Mackerel are larger than sardines, weighing between 1.5 and 2.2 pounds while reaching a top weight of 7.5 pounds and growing between 10 and 26 inches while sardines weigh between .2 and 4.5 pounds and grow up to 15.6 inches at their utmost.

Also, the mackerel has a torpedo-shaped body while the sardines have an elongated, flat body. Mackerel have two dorsal fins and two anal fins, but many sardines have a single dorsal fin and anal fins. While sardines are silvery fish, mackerel have a green-blue top of their body with several dark stripes, and they have a light coloring on the bottom.

These are the main differences between these fish, but they’re not the only ones. Let’s take a closer look at these two fish to find out more.

Mackerel vs Sardines: Size

The average Atlantic mackerel is larger than the average sardine. For example, mackerel weigh anywhere between 1.5 and 2.2 pounds on average, but can weigh up to 7.5 pounds. Sardines weigh between 0.2 and 4.5 pounds on average.

Also, a mackerel grows between 10 and 16.6 inches on average, but it can grow up to 26 inches in length. Sardines can grow between 6 and 15.6 inches in total length.

Mackerel vs Sardines: Morphology

Sardines and mackerel have many substantial differences in their bodies including their color, tails, and body shape. Mackerel have a torpedo-shaped body while sardines have an elongated, flat body.

Mackerel and sardines both have forked tails. Sardines have a single anal fin and a single dorsal fin, but mackerel have both along with finlets behind the anal fin. Some sardines can have small finlets behind their anal fin as well.  

Mackerel have a green-blue body with dark stripes, but sardines have a silver body with no scales on their head. These unique qualities make it easy to tell the creatures apart from one another at glance.  

Mackerel vs Sardines: Diet

Both mackerel and sardines subsist on small creatures in the water. Sardines eat zooplankton and phytoplankton along with the eggs of small crustaceans. They also eat decapods and fish eggs.

Mackerel eat krill, copepods, shrimp, and some other small crustaceans. These creatures eat many of the same animals, but not all of them.

Mackerel vs Sardines: Phylogenetic Families

Sardines and mackerel are from different phylogenetic families. Mackerel belong to the Scombridae family. True mackerel belong to the Scombrini tribe, especially the genera Scomber and Rastrelliger. Meanwhile, sardines are from the Clupeidae family, but they come from several genera, including Sardina, Dussumieria, Escualosa, Sardinops, and Sardinella.

Mackerel and sardines do not overlap in terms of their genera.

Mackerel vs Sardines: Uses

School of sardines swimming from left to right

Sardines are a popular fish which are typically consumed more than mackerel

©Dennis Forster/

Both mackerel and sardines are popularly consumed by humans. Both species are known for being low in mercury, at least the European pilchard and the Atlantic mackerel. Yet, some, like the king mackerel, are high in mercury and should not be eaten several times in a week.

Mackerel are served smoked, salted, or fresh. They’re also fried in oil, made into soups, and roasted while served with vegetables. This fish has a strong taste as opposed to sardines which are rather light in their taste.

Sardines are frequently served in cans, but they are cooked whole and fresh too. They may be baked into pies, smoked, or even pickled. The uses of sardines are numerous and similar to the uses of mackerel. However, sardines are caught by commercial fish in far greater numbers than mackerel.

Sardines are a more popular fish to consume, and they have more uses. After all, sardines are a popular dinner for humans, but they’re also used as bait fish, animal feed, and as a source of oil. All told, these fish are very similar in some ways, but they have enough differences in their bodies, uses, and size that it’s possible to differentiate them.

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About the Author

Kyle Glatz is a writer at A-Z-Animals where his primary focus is on geography and mammals. Kyle has been writing for researching and writing about animals and numerous other topics for 10 years, and he holds a Bachelor's Degree in English and Education from Rowan University. A resident of New Jersey, Kyle enjoys reading, writing, and playing video games.

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