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Atlantic Herring

Clupea harengus

Atlantic Herring illustration

Also Known As

  • Herring
  • Sea herring
  • Sild
  • Common herring
  • Labrador herring
  • Sardine
  • Sperling

U.S. wild-caught Atlantic herring is a smart seafood choice because it is sustainably managed and responsibly harvested under U.S. regulations.

Population

Significantly below target population level. A rebuilding plan is being developed for the Atlantic herring stock.

Fishing Rate

At recommended levels.

Habitat Impacts

Fishing gears used to harvest Atlantic herring have minimal impacts on habitat.

Bycatch

Regulations are in place to minimize bycatch.

  • Availability

    Year-round. Most of the herring eaten in the United States is canned and either pickled or smoked.

  • Source

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

  • Taste

    Small fresh herring have a more delicate flavor, while larger herring have a fuller, oilier flavor.

  • Texture

    The meat of fresh herring is soft.

  • Color

    The meat of fresh herring is off-white.

  • Health Benefits

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

The U.S. Fishery

Fishery Management

  • The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission 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.
  • Managed under the 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 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.
    • Catch reductions have been put in place for 2018-2021 to prevent overfishing and reduce the risk that the stock will become overfished.

Harvest

  • Commercial fishery:
    • In 2019, commercial landings of Atlantic herring totaled more than 24.7 million pounds and were valued at more than $9.1 million, according to the NOAA Fisheries commercial fishing landings database. These figures may not match other agency sources of data due to confidential information.
    • During the past decade, the United States has accounted for 78 percent of the total herring harvest, with Canada harvesting the remainder.
    • 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 fishermen targeting lobster, blue crab, and tuna.
  • Gear types, habitat impacts, and bycatch:
    • 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 mid-water trawlers and purse seiners.
    • 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.
    • 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.
    • Fisheries that harvest groundfish (such as cod and haddock) and herring operate in the same areas during the same seasons. Herring vessels may incidentally catch groundfish (mainly haddock). Managers set a cap on the amount of haddock that can be caught by the herring midwater trawl fishery.
    • The Atlantic herring fishery can incidentally catch marine mammals. Currently, these takes are below limits that would require mitigation under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
    • Management measures to reduce marine mammal interactions include research, outreach to educate fisherman about actions they can take in the event of a marine mammal interaction, and efforts to communicate interaction hotspots to fishermen.

The Science

Population Status

  • According to the 2020 stock assessment, Atlantic herring are overfished, but not subject to overfishing. Summary stock assessment information can be found on Stock SMART.
  • Herring populations are naturally highly variable.

Location

  • Atlantic herring are found on both sides of the North Atlantic. In the western North Atlantic, they are found from Labrador to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.

Habitat

  • Atlantic herring are found in coastal and continental shelf waters.

Physical Description

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

Biology

  • Atlantic herring are one of nearly 200 herring species in the family Clupeidae.
  • They grow quickly, up to 14 inches.
  • They can live up to 15 years.
  • They are able to reproduce when they reach age 4.
  • Atlantic herring migrate in schools to areas where they feed, spawn, and spend the winter.
  • 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.
  • They deposit their eggs on rock, gravel, or sand ocean bottom.
  • 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.

Research

  • NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center collects data on herring during its bottom trawl surveys and also conducts a dedicated herring acoustic survey, concentrated on the Georges Bank region. Members of the lobster fishing industry (who have an interest in the herring resource as a bait source), private research institutions, and the Science Center have conducted acoustic herring surveys using smaller industry vessels, with sampling largely concentrated on inshore Gulf of Maine herring stocks. Results from these efforts are not yet available.

Last updated: 10/14/2020