• Scientific name: Clupea harengus
  • Also known as: Atlantic Herring
  • Size: Exceptionally up to 16 inches in length, but the vast majority are around half this size.
  • UK minimum size:8ins/20cm
  • UK shore caught record: No record stands. Qualifying weight set at 1lb.
  • IGFA world record: 2lb 4oz
  • IUCN Status: LC (Least Concern)
  • Distribution: Found throughout British and Irish waters, but the highest populations are located in the northern North Sea off the coast of Scotland and in Northern Irish waters.
  • Feeds on: Filter feeds on plankton and minute sea creatures, but will also take very small sprats and fry of other fish.
  • Description: Small fish with silver sides and belly. Upper sections can have a blue or green tinge. Head and gills can be blackish. Scales are relatively large and easily detached from the body. A single short dorsal fin is on the back and the anal fin is also small. No lateral line is visible. The tail is deeply forked.
Herring Shoal

Animation of a shoal of herring rushing past. Image © Kils

There are three species of herring. The Pacific herring (Clupea pallasii) unsurprisingly lives in the sea of its name and the Araucanian herring (Clupea bentincki) is found off the coast of Chile and other South American countries. The Atlantic herring is the species found in the seas around Europe and North America. Atlantic herring is by far the most abundant of the three, and while it is a small forage species it is found in massive numbers. Herring shoals have been reported in sizes of one cubic mile, containing several billion individual fish. Atlantic herring are abundant on both sides of the Atlantic with around 90% of UK stocks located in Scottish and Northern Irish waters. Atlantic herring is thought to be the most second abundant fish in the world (after the deep-sea bristlemouth).

Herring Reproduction and Early Life

Herring have an unusual breeding cycle as different stocks of herring spawn at different points of the year, meaning that summer, spring, autumn and winter year classes are all produced. Herring breed en masse and tens of thousands of eggs are produced by each female which are then fertilised by the males and fall to the seabed where they become attached to weeds and stones. Eggs hatch in ten days in warm water, but take over a month when the sea is cooler. Once hatched the immature herring have a very small yolk sac attached which provides sustenance until the fry is around 10 – 15mm long. After that point the fish has to fend for itself and becomes sexually mature at around 10cm long which takes two or three years.

Herring Eggs and Larva

1. Herring eggs with the black eyes of the larva visible within the egg cases. One larva at the top of the picture has hatched.

2. A herring larva inside a droplet of water. A match head is held next to it to provide scale.

3. A newly hatched herring larva with the small yolk sac still attached.

4. The small, immature herring that will eventually grow into the mature fish.

Herring as a Commercial Fish

Herring Commercial Catch

A commercial catch of herring.

Herring are of high importance to marine ecosystems as they provide an abundant food source to a huge number of species. Sea birds such as gannets and gulls feed on herring, as do dolphins, porpoises, whales, seals and practically all predatory fish in British waters, ranging from cod, bass and mackerel to sharks and salmon. Herring are also hugely commercially important and have been exploited for human consumption in Europe since around 3000BC. While the popularity of this species as a food fish has fallen in the UK it is still very popular in Eastern Europe and other parts of the world. Herring is used in a variety of ways:

  • Kippers are split, gutted and cold-smoked herring. Historically from Scotland.
  • Bloaters are smoked or grilled herring that have not been gutted. Historically an English dish.
  • Rollmops are pickled herring fillets rolled around a savoury filling.
  • Brathering is a fried and marinated herring – a method of serving herring which originated in Germany.
  • Soused herring is cooked in a marinade of vinegar or wine.
  • Kwamegi is herring which has been repeatedly frozen and dried to dehydrate the meat. This method of preparation originated in Korea.
  • Surströmming (pictured below) is fermented canned herring, originating from Sweden. Tins containing surströmming sometimes bulge during storage due to the continued fermentation of the fish inside. Surströmming is often called the most unpleasant smelling food in the world, as the video below shows.

Conservation Status

Due to their abundance and ability to rapidly repopulate herring are not in danger of being overfished and the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) classes herring as a species of Least Concern with an increasing population trend. Herring, therefore, make a good alternative to choose instead of species which come from under pressure stocks such as cod, haddock and plaice. Furthermore, herring are caught using purse seining or pelagic trawls – methods of commercial fishing which do not contact the seabed and therefore do not cause as much damage to the marine environment as bottom trawling methods – which is yet another reason to encourage eating herring ahead of other species.

Red Herring and The King of Herrings

Red Herring

This fish does not exist.

The popular phrase ‘red herring’ is often used to describe an intentionally misleading clue or piece of advice. However, no such thing as a red herring exists in nature, and anyone insisting that such a thing exists is either joking or incredibly stupid. Also, there is a deep-sea species known as the giant oarfish (Regalecus glesne) which is also known as the king of herrings. This species got its name as it was sighted by sailors and fishermen in the 1700s and 1800s at the near to shoals of herring. These men mistakenly believed that the massive oarfish was leading the herrings, hence its nickname. In reality, this species is not related to the Atlantic herring or any other species of herring.

Methods and Techniques to Catch Herring

Being a pelagic species herring swim at midwater, at depths anywhere between a few metres below the surface and several hundred metres deep. Herring feed mostly on plankton and krill which they take in and filter through their gill rakers. Despite many people believing that herring feed exclusively this way, they will in fact also hunt small fish and aquatic creatures which they come across. While they are far from a common catch by shore anglers they are sometimes caught on feathers and daylights which are meant for mackerel, while anglers specifically targeting herring sometimes use specifically made very small daylights with size 6 – 8 hooks. There is currently no UK shore caught record listed and the qualifying weight is set at 1lb. The boat caught record is a herring of 1lb 1oz caught off the coast of Sussex in 1973. The International Game Fish Association all-tackle world record is listed as being a herring of 2lb 4oz which was caught by Guillaume Fourrier at Dieppe, France in 2011.

Herring as Bait

Being an oily fish which releases plenty of scent herring are make a good sea fishing bait. They can be used whole for large species such as conger eels or strip of herring can be used as a bait for smaller species or to tip off other baits. Read more on the page on herring as a sea fishing bait.

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