Atlantic Herring | Oceana Canada

Canadian Marine Life Encyclopedia

Atlantic Herring

Clupea harengus

Also known as

Bank herring, shore herring, common herring, sardines

Distribution

Throughout the North Atlantic Ocean

Écosystèmes/habitats

Pelagic to coastal in cold to temperate waters

Feeding Habits

Filter feeder

Conservation Status

Not listed

Taxonomie

Order Clupeiformes (herring), Family Clupeidae (herrings, shads, sardines, menhadens)

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Small but mighty, Atlantic herring are one of the most abundant fish in the ocean and are often found gathered together in large schools. Some schools of herring have been estimated to contain several billion fish! They are silvery fish with a blueish iridescence found all throughout the North Atlantic Ocean and are socially, culturally and economically important to humans. They are a migratory species, demonstrating both seasonal migrations, coming inshore from the open ocean for spawning and over-wintering purposes; and temporal migrations, spending daytime in deeper waters and coming up to the surface to feed at night. 

Small and silver in colour, Atlantic herring have a classic streamlined shape, with a round belly, forked tail and a protruding lower jaw. They are a schooling fish, often found grouped together in large numbers. Typically, herring grow to a maximum of 44 centimetres in length and a maximum weight of only 750 grams. Compared to Pacific herring, Atlantic herring have slightly darker coloured pectoral, pelvic and tail fins. 

They are known as a “forage fish” because they are preyed upon by larger fish and marine mammals such as sharks, whales and dolphins. In fact, they are vitally important to the entire ecosystem on the east coast. Their eggs are preyed upon by a variety of bottom-dwelling fish, including cod and winter flounder, and once they become juveniles, they are heavily preyed upon by fish, sharks, seabirds and more due to their abundance and small size.

Atlantic herring are filter feeders, feeding primarily on plankton and small fish. Different populations of herring spawn at different times of the year, giving them names such as “spring spawners” or “fall spawners.” One female alone can produce 30,000 - 200,000 eggs, which then hatch about a week after fertilization. Herring lay their eggs on rocky, gravelly bottoms or sometimes directly on marine plants such as kelp. The eggs are extremely sticky so when large schools of herring congregate to spawn, they can produce so many eggs that it completely covers the seafloor with several centimetres of eggs. They reach maturity around the age of 4 and can live upwards of 15 years.

There are eight main fisheries for Atlantic herring that support both commercial food and bait fisheries. They are caught with a variety of fishing gear including gillnets, purse seines, weirs and trapnets. The Atlantic herring fishery is commercially important off southwest Nova Scotia and the Bay of Fundy, the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence, and on the east and west coasts of Newfoundland. However, landings in most of these regions have dropped from their peak in 1960’s and 1970’s to historical lows in in more recent years.

Most herring products from Atlantic Canada are exported to Japan, the United States and the Dominican Republic. They are exported in many different forms from fresh or frozen to smoked, marinated, pickled, cured, canned or, most importantly, for their roe (eggs).

The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) has not yet assessed or listed Atlantic herring but they are listed as Least Concern under the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Unfortunately, due to their migratory nature and multiple spawning locations, determining their status in Canadian waters can be difficult, and varies from region to region. Some stocks have been assessed as healthy while others are listed as cautious and critical while others are unknown due to lack of sufficient data. Generally speaking, Atlantic herring in Canada are seeing declines in abundance and commercial landings across their range, particularly off the coast of Nova Scotia.

To learn more about the status of Canada’s fisheries go to FisheryAudit.ca.