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Last updated: February 10, 2021
Verified by: IMP
Image Credit Four Oaks/Shutterstock.com

People enjoy the taste of the oily fish in many different ways including pickled, smoked, salted, dried and fermented.

Herring Scientific Classification


Read our Complete Guide to Classification of Animals.

Herring Conservation Status

Herring Locations

Herring Locations

Herring Facts

Zooplankton, phytoplankton
Group Behavior
  • School
Fun Fact
People enjoy the taste of the oily fish in many different ways including pickled, smoked, salted, dried and fermented.
Estimated Population Size
Variable and depending on species
Biggest Threat
Most Distinctive Feature
Huge schools
Other Name(s)
Silver darlings, silver of the sea
Gestation Period
11-40 days depending on water temperature
Temperate waters
Seabirds, marine mammals, predatory fish, fishermen
Vertebrate, Clupeoid
Common Name
Number Of Species

Herring Physical Characteristics

  • Silver
Skin Type
Top Speed
-3 mph
8-22 years depending on species and location
0.41-1.05kg (0.90-2.3lb)
10.5-60cm (4.1-23.6in)

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Herring are forage fishes, also known as silver darlings or silver of the sea.

Herring fish are pelagic, meaning they live in the open sea beyond the low tide mark. Most live in the temperature, shallow waters of the North Pacific and North Atlantic Oceans. They are a major food source as baitfish and for human consumption in recipes with different tastes such as fermented, pickled, smoked, and dried. Some species are vulnerable due to overfishing.

5 Incredible Herring Facts

  • The Araucanian, Atlantic, and Pacific species make up 90% of the herrings caught in fisheries.
  • The Atlantic herring makes up over half of all herring capture.
  • A school in the North Atlantic ocean can reach up to 3 billion fish, with the fish occupying up to 4.8 cubic kilometers with fish densities between 0.5 and 1.0 fish/cubic meter.
  • Herring fish can move up to 10 times their body length per second.
  • Herring fish have excellent hearing.

Herring Classification and Scientific Name

The definition of this fish is a small forage fish that usually belongs to the family Clupeidae. Clupea is the type genus of the family Clupeidae, although there are other genera. For example, the wolf herrings are in the genus Chirocentrus and the family Chirocentridae, although “wolf herring” can refer to either of the two subspecies. The three species of the Clupea genus are the Atlantic, the Pacific, and the Araucanian herring.

Herring Species

There are 200 species in the family Clupeidae. Some notable species are:

  • Araucanian (Clupea bentincki)
  • Pacific (Clupea pallasii)
  • Atlantic (Clupea harengus)
  • Baltic (Clupea harengus membras)
  • Wolf: 2 subspecies, the Dorab wolf-herring (Chirocentrus dorab) and the Whitefin wolf-herring (Chirocentrus nudus)
  • River herring: 2 subspecies, the Blueback herring (Alosa aestivalis) and Alewife (Alosa pseudoharengus)

Herring Appearance

Herring fish are bright silver with a bluish or greenish back. All species in the family Clupeidae share a soft, single and spineless dorsal fin, small head, protruding lower jaw, and no lateral line, while those in the family Chirocentridae are ray-finned. Their length and weight vary depending on the species.

School of silverside herrings from the coral reefs

Herring Distribution, Population, and Habitat

Atlantic species live on both sides of the Atlantic ocean, while Pacific species live in the North Pacific ocean and Arauceanian species live off the coast of Chile. Many species are marine, while others are anadromous, such as the blueback and alewife subspecies of river herrings. On the other hand, the toothed river herring or Papuan river sprat (Clupeoides papuensis) is a freshwater species.

Herring Predators and Prey

The definition of these fish in terms of diet is a small forage fish or filter-feeding fish. They consume many animals that are smaller than them, including various types of zooplankton and phytoplankton. They make up for their small size by forming huge schools and with their excellent hearing, they can quickly react to predators.

What do herring eat?

These fish eat copepods, arrow worms, krill, mysids, pteropods, annelids and pelagic amphipods. They also eat other tiny crustaceans and worms, smaller fish, diatoms, tintinnids, fish larvae, larval snails, molluscan larvae, and menhaden larvae.

What eats herring?

The Western grebes, common murres, Atlantic puffins, razorbills, common terns, and Arctic terns are some examples of seabirds that depend on these fish. Marine mammals that eat them are dolphins, porpoises, whales, seals, and sea-lions, while the predatory fish that eat these fish are sharks (including thresher sharks and spinner sharks), swordfish, sailfish and other billfish, tuna, salmon, striped bass, cod, and halibut. Fishermen catch mostly Clupea species.

Herring Reproduction and Lifespan

These fish reproduce through spawning. They spawn once a year after reaching sexual maturity at 3 or 4 years of age, although at least one Atlantic species spawns every month of the year. Some species are anadromous, meaning they live in salt water but migrate to fresh water for spawnings, such as the blueback and the alewife.

The season and location in which the fish spawns depend on the species. For example, those in Greenland spawn in 0-5m (0-16ft) of water, while those in the North Sea spawn at down to 200m (660ft) in the fall. Females lay the eggs on the sea bed, on rock, stones, gravel, sand, or in algae beds, with the highest survival being in crevices and behind solid structures in order to avoid open exposure to predators. They may lay anywhere from 20,000-40,000 eggs depending on their age and size but on average about 30,000.

The eggs sink, settle and stick together as well as to any sediment or debris due to their mucous coating. They need continuous microturbulence from wave action or coastal currents to ensure the layers are not too thick with mucus, which would deplete their oxygen and kill them. Their incubation time is 40 days at 3 °C (37 °F), 15 days at 7 °C (45 °F), or 11 days at 10 °C (50 °F). They die at temperatures above 19 °C (66 °F). Individual eggs are 1-1.4mm (3/64-1/16in) in diameter.

Herring in Fishing and Cooking

The Pacific thread herring, red-eye round herring, and whitehead’s round herring make up the remaining 10% of these fish caught in fisheries, and they are not of the Clupea genus. However, all species are important, even the smallest ones. One of its main uses is baitfish. There are also the useful by-products of fish oil, which used as a nutritional supplement, and fishmeal, which is used as farm animal feed.

However, their most important use is as a food source, with a taste at its most basic described as mild, oily, and flaky. The most common recipes involve them being eaten raw, salted, fermented, dried, pickled, or smoked, with the eggs being valued as a caviar substitute. They are most commonly eaten in Baltic countries and the British Isles.

Fermented herring

The most popular example of fermented herring is the Swedish surströmming, which has been traditional since the 16th century. It uses Baltic fish, which is lightly salted and fermented for 6 months before being canned. A newly-opened can is said to have one of the most putrid smells in the world.

Dried herring

Dried herring are a common breakfast staple in the Phillippines along with garlic rice and eggs. The fish is typically dried with salt and is also called salted dried herring.

Pickled herring

German, Nordic, Dutch, Polish, Baltic, and Jewish cuisines all include pickled herrings. The two-step process involves curing with salt and then removing the salt and adding other spices or flavorings.

Kippered or red herring

Kippered or red herring are called kippers. They turn red due to being smoked, a curing process that is done on the fish during the spawning season when they don’t taste as good. Canned kippered fish is called “kipper snacks” and typically eaten in the British Isles and Scandinavia.

Herring Population

These fish populations fluctuate with fishing and reproduction, which replaces the older fish with young ones. The species with a Vulnerable conservation status according to the IUCN are: Blueback (Alosa aestivalis), Venezuelan (Jenkinsia parvula), Galapagos thread herring (Opisthonema berlangai), Denticle (Denticeps clupeoides), Cuban longfin herring (Neoopisthopterus cubanus) and Vaqueira longfin herring (Opisthopterus effulgens). Their common threat is overfishing.

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Herring FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

What is herring?

The definition of a herring is usually a small forage fish from the family Clupeidae, with most being from the genus Clupea.

Where are herring found?

Herring lives in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, the Baltic Sea, and off the west coast of South America.

What is a red herring?

A red herring also called a kippered herring or a kipper, is a smoked herring, so-called due to its color.

Is herring a good fish to eat?

Herring is an oily fish that is high in Omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, selenium, and every other essential nutrient in varying proportions.

Is a herring the same as a sardine?

No. Although herrings are often marketed as sardines or pilchards because they are so similar, herrings and sardines are different fish species that belong to the family Clupeidae. It is also believed that sardines are just smaller herrings.

How big do herrings get?

The size of a herring depends on its age and species. They can be as small as 10.5cm (4.1in) or as large as 60cm (23.6in).

What Kingdom do Herring belong to?

Herring belong to the Kingdom Animalia.

How do Herrings have babies?

Herrings lay eggs.

  1. Wikipedia, Available here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herring
  2. MiMi, Available here: https://en.mimi.hu/animals/herring.html
  3. National Geographic, Available here: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2015/2/150211-herring-decline-british-columbia-fishery-seabirds-environment/
  4. eHow UK, Available here: https://www.ehow.co.uk/info_8101360_eats-herring.html
  5. World Wildlife Fund, Available here: https://www.worldwildlife.org/industries/fishmeal-and-fish-oil
  6. Nutrition Advance, Available here: https://www.nutritionadvance.com/herring-nutrition-benefits/

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