Thousands of tons of dead sardines have washed up on a beach in northern Japan for unknown reasons, officials said on Friday.

The sardines and some mackerel washed ashore in Hakodate on Japan’s northernmost main island of Hokkaido on Thursday morning, creating a sliver blanket along a stretch of beach about a kilometre (0.6 miles) long.

Local residents said they have never seen anything like it. Some gathered the fish to sell or eat.

The town, in a notice posted on its website, urged residents not to consume the fish.

Japan Dead Sardines
Officials warned residents not to consume the fish as they did not yet know why they had washed up (Kyodo News via AP)

Takashi Fujioka, a Hakodate Fisheries Research Institute researcher, said he had heard of similar phenomena before, but it was his first time seeing it.

He said the fish may have been chased by larger fish, become exhausted due to a lack of oxygen while moving in a densely packed school, and were washed up by the waves.

The fish also may have suddenly entered cold waters during their migration, he said.

The decomposing fish could lower oxygen levels in the water and affect the marine environment, he said.

“We don’t know for sure under what circumstances these fish were washed up, so I do not recommend eating them”, Mr Fujioka said.