An excess of low-frequency mutations is a ubiquitous characteristic of many marine species, and may be explained by three hypotheses. First, the demographic expansion hypothesis postulates that many species experienced a post-glacial expansion following a Pleistocene population bottleneck. The second invokes some form of natural selection, such as directional selection and selective sweeps. The third explanation, the reproductive skew hypothesis, postulates that high variation in individual reproductive success in many marine species influences genetic diversity. In this study, we focused on demography and reproductive success and the use of coalescent theory to analyse mitochondrial DNA sequences from the Japanese sardine. Our results show that population parameters estimated from both the site-frequency spectrum and the mismatch distribution of pairwise nucleotide differences refute the demographic expansion hypothesis. Further, the observed mismatch distribution, compared with the expectations of the reproductive skew hypothesis, supports the presence of multiple mergers in the genealogy. Many short external branches but few long terminal branches are found in the sardine genealogy. Model misspecification can lead to misleading contemporary and historical estimates of the genetically effective population sizes in marine species. The prevalence of reproductive skew in marine species influences not only the analysis of genetic data but also has ecological implications for understanding variation in reproductive and recruitment patterns in exploited species.