Atlantic Herring

Atlantic Herring Image

Clupea harengus


    Herring, Sea Herring, Sild, Common Herring, Labrador Herring, Sardine, Sperling


    U.S. wild-caught from Maine to North Carolina



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School of herring

Herring migrate in schools to areas where they feed, spawn, and spend the winter.


Atlantic herring is one of nearly 200 herring species in the family Clupeidae. Herring populations are naturally highly variable, possibly due to changing environmental conditions. Fishing can exacerbate this variability.

New England fishermen have been harvesting herring since the late 19th century. Until the late 1950s, annual harvests averaged 60,000 metric tons. Foreign fleets entered the fishery in the mid-1900s and heavily fished the herring resource, with harvests peaking at 470,000 metric tons in 1968. Combined with herring’s natural population changes, these excessive, unsustainable harvests led to a collapse of the offshore herring fishery in the 1970s. Right around this time, in 1976, Congress passed the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the legislation that drives fishery management in the United States. Under this new legislation, fishery managers phased out foreign fishing and implemented measures to regulate domestic fisheries. Under these regulations, herring began to rebuild in the late 1980s.

Atlantic herring has recovered substantially from the very low levels of the 1970s and is now harvested sustainably. The Atlantic herring fishery is extremely valuable to the economy in the U.S. Northeast. Herring are sold frozen, salted, or canned as sardines in both U.S. and international markets and provide affordable bait to lobster, blue crab, and tuna fishermen. Herring are managed under annual catch limits, which limit the amount of herring fishermen are allowed to catch per year to ensure the resource isn’t overharvested again and that this important fishery can continue for generations to come.

Looking Ahead

Fisheries that harvest groundfish (cod, haddock, etc.) and herring operate in the same areas during the same seasons. There have been concerns that herring vessels may incidentally catch groundfish (mainly haddock). Over the years, managers have enacted and modified regulations to limit and monitor herring vessels’ groundfish catch, while providing herring vessels access to the herring. Initial measures prohibited herring vessels from catching groundfish, which worked to reduce catch of groundfish but also limited herring fishermen’s ability to harvest their herring quota. More recently, managers set a cap on the amount of haddock that could be caught by the herring fishery, still severely limiting the herring fishery. In 2011, managers revised the cap on haddock catch, allowing herring fishermen a better opportunity to fully harvest the available herring quota, providing incentives for the herring fishery to minimize haddock catch, and ensuring haddock catch is adequately controlled and monitored.



Atlantic herring are found on both sides of the North Atlantic. In the western North Atlantic, herring are found in coastal and continental shelf waters from Labrador to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. Herring migrate in schools to areas where they feed, spawn, and spend the winter.



Atlantic herring grow quickly, and up to 14 inches. They can live up to 15 years. They’re able to reproduce when they reach age 4. They spawn as early as August in Nova Scotia and eastern Maine and from October through November in the southern Gulf of Maine, Georges Bank, and Nantucket Shoals. Female herring can produce 30,000 to 200,000 eggs. When herring spawn, they deposit their eggs on the rock, gravel, or sand bottoms. Schools of herring can produce so many eggs that they cover the ocean bottom in a dense carpet of eggs several centimeters thick. The eggs usually hatch in 7 to 10 days, depending on temperature. By late spring, larvae grow into juvenile herring, which form large schools in coastal waters during the summer.

Atlantic herring is an important species in the food web of the northwest Atlantic Ocean. A variety of bottom-dwelling fish – including winter flounder, cod, haddock, and red hake – feed on herring eggs. Juvenile herring are heavily preyed upon due to their abundance and small size. A number of fish, sharks, skates, marine mammals, and seabirds prey on herring. Atlantic herring feed on zooplankton (tiny floating animals), krill, and fish larvae.



Atlantic herring is a small schooling fish. They are silvery in color, with a bluish or greenish-blue back.



For more than 40 years, NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center has conducted bottom trawl surveys designed to assess groundfish, but also collected data on herring. The Center has also conducted a dedicated herring acoustic survey, concentrated on the Georges Bank region since 1999. In the past, the herring fishing industry, private research institutions, and the Center conducted sporadic acoustic surveys with sampling concentrated largely in the Gulf of Maine. More recently, members of the lobster fishing industry, private research institutions, and the Center conducted acoustic herring surveys, with sampling largely concentrated on inshore, Gulf of Maine herring stocks. (Herring is used by the lobster industry to bait their traps so they are very interested in the herring resource. Also, lobster vessels are smaller than the large herring vessels, so they have more access to inshore areas.) Results from these efforts are not yet available.



Based on a new stock assessment in 2012 that utilized spawning stock biomass (the amount of fish in the population capable of reproducing), scientists estimate the Atlantic herring population is at 517,930 metric tons, which is well above the target level of 157,000 metric tons. Based on this stock assessment the stock is not overfished, and overfishing is not occurring.


Harvesting Atlantic Herring

Historically, Gulf of Maine herring were harvested along the coast in fixed-gear weirs (a fence of long stakes driven into the ground with nets arranged in a circle). Today, herring are primarily harvested by purse seiners and mid-water trawlers.

Purse seiners catch schooling fish near the surface by encircling them with a net. When the net is around the school, fishermen lift up a wire that runs through the bottom of the net, closing the “purse” from below.

Mid-water trawlers deploy and tow a net in the water column to catch schooling fish such as herring. The large front end of the net herds schooling fish toward the narrow back end, where they become trapped.



Who’s in charge? The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission disclaimer coordinates management of the herring fishery in state waters, and the New England Fishery Management Council manages the fishery in federal waters. The two entities develop their regulations in close coordination. Individual states are responsible for implementing regulations recommended by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, and NOAA Fisheries is responsible for implementing regulations recommended by the New England Fishery Management Council.

Current management: Atlantic Herring Fishery Management Plan and Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Herring

  • An annual catch limit for the entire herring fishery based upon scientific information on the status of the stock. Managers divide the catch limit into four area-specific limits. When an area-specific limit is reached, the directed fishery in that area is prohibited, and only incidental catches of herring are allowed.
  • A limited access permit program that limits the number of vessels that can participate in the directed fishery for herring. Vessels that do not qualify for a limited access permit can be issued an open access permit, allowing them to harvest a small amount of herring (6,600 pounds) per day or per trip.
  • Limits on the amount of herring a vessel can possess in one day or on one trip, depending on the type of permit.
  • The Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Herring contains measures that close areas to herring fishing when herring are spawning.

Annual Harvest

In 2011, U.S. commercial fishermen harvested over 174.3 million pounds of Atlantic herring. During the past decade, the United States has accounted for 78 percent of the total herring harvest, with Canada making up the balance.



The Atlantic herring fishery is extremely valuable to the economy in the Northeast United States. Herring are sold frozen, salted, or canned as sardines in both U.S. and international markets and provide affordable bait to lobster, blue crab, and tuna fishermen. The 2011 harvest was worth $24.7 million.



Most of the herring eaten in the United States is canned and either pickled or smoked. Fresh herring is delicious and versatile, but it’s rare to find well-handled fresh product in U.S. markets. Fresh, whole herring should be bright with hard bellies. The meat of fresh herring is off-white and soft. Small fresh herring have a more delicate flavor while larger herring have a fuller, oilier flavor. Otherwise, flavor and texture depend on how the herring has been prepared - whether pickled, smoked, or salted. (Seafood Business, 2011)






Atlantic herring are a great source of omega-3s, vitamin B12, and iron.

Servings 1
Serving Weight 100 g (raw)
Calories 158
Protein 17.96 g
Fat, total 9.04 g
Saturated fatty acids, total 2.04 g
Carbohydrate 0 g
Sugars, total 0 g
Fiber, total dietary 0 g
Cholesterol 60 mg
Selenium 36.5 mcg
Sodium 90 mg

Atlantic Herring Table of Nutrition



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