Growth patterns inferred from otolith microstructure analysis were compared between sprat Sprattus sprattus early juveniles (26–42 mm total length, LT) collected in August 2003 in shallow coastal waters of the Kiel Fjord, and sprat recruits (60–95 mm LT) sampled in October during a pelagic trawl survey of the western Baltic Sea. At the end of August, a sudden and very rapid decline in otolith growth was observed in early juveniles but not in sprat recruits. Laboratory results indicated that the early juvenile fish were starving prior to capture. Specifically, when transferred to the laboratory, otolith growth rates immediately increased in fish provided ad libitum food rations, while otolith growth of starved fish continued to decline in the same manner observed prior to field collection. In addition, the vast majority of juvenile sprat had empty stomachs on the sampling day. Given that juveniles and recruits probably experienced similar temperature conditions, the rapid decline in juvenile growth rates presumably resulted from very poor feeding conditions in nearshore waters. Starvation during the early juvenile period has not been documented before, but may, at least in the case of Baltic sprat, comprise a density-dependent mechanism operating in coastal nursery areas in some years.