Herring are small pelagic fish that belong to the family of Clupeidae, which consists of about 200 species. Like other pelagic fish, they move in large schools and inhabit the water column, not the shore or near the bottom, of lakes and open oceans. You’ll find them in shallow temperate waters.

Many fish species belonging to the family Clupeidae are commonly referred to as herrings. The origin of this name is unclear, but most experts think it comes from the Old High German word. ‘heri,’ which means a ‘host’ or ‘multitude.’ So, the term ‘herring’ could refer to the large schools these species of fish form.

 The study of herring was essential for the development of fisheries in Europe in the 20th century. At the same time, since at least 3,000 B.C., they have been some of the most popular stable food sources. Given herring’s rich history and impact on the global food chain, this article intends to explore this fish to help readers appreciate their exceptional value in the aquatic ecosystem.

School of herring fish
School of herring fish


With herring’s small heads and streamlined bodies, they are fully adapted for long-distance travel in large schools, providing food for tuna, salmon, and other larger predators. The beautifully colored body, silvery iridescent sides, and metallic-hued backs set these fish apart from many other species in the same class.

Herring Fish
Adult herring fish

These animals are typically small, with adults measuring between 20 and 38 centimeters (eight and 15 inches) long.


Since herring are tiny animals, they primarily feed on plankton like copepods, krill, arrow worms, and pelagic amphipods. Other than this zooplankton, they can feed on phytoplankton, especially during their early stages of life.  

During the day, these animals stay in the safety of deep water. However, they come toward the water’s surface at night to feed. This is the safest time to do so.

How do herring eat? These small animals always swim with their mouths open. This allows them to filter zooplankton and phytoplankton from the water as they pass through their gills.

Since young herring are usually much smaller than their adult counterparts, they hunt copepods individually. These are smaller and typically range from one and two millimeters long. Besides, they come with a teardrop-shaped body, making them a suitable food source for young herring. 



Herrings are available in plenty in the shallow, temperate waters of the North Atlantic and North Pacific Oceans. You can find various types of herring on South America’s west coast and the Baltic Sea. 

Better still, there are more in the Bay of Bengal, Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean, and other aquatic water bodies.

As we said before, there are plenty of herring species. Nonetheless, only three make up approximately 90% of all the fish that fisheries capture. At the same time, over half of the capture is the Atlantic herring.


Herring spawn at different times of the year and places, depending on the species. For example, the North Sea herring spawn in autumn, while the Atlantic spawns every month.

Where do herring lay eggs? These animals have several options, from sea beds and beds of algae to stones and sand, where the female herring can deposit between 20,000 and 40,000 sticky eggs. Note that the survival rates are highest behind solid structures and in crevices.

Moreover, herring eggs hatch in approximately two weeks, and the fish reaches adulthood in about four years. It can live for up to 20 years.


Overfishing exposes adult herring to great danger. Fisheries harvest these fish for their flesh and eggs. Moreover, they use them as baitfish. Given these benefits, the herring trade is booming in many parts of the world. In Europe, it’s referred to as the ‘solver of the sea,’ a term that denotes herring’s economic value.

As we said before, herring are forage fish, meaning they have many predators. Some of these are tuna fish, whales, sea lions, sharks, salmon, seabirds, herring gull, and dolphins.

Herring gull attack herring schools from above
Herring gull attack herring schools from above

General factors like climate change, global warming, pollution, and ocean acidity are also a threat to the existence of herring. If the situation remains as it is today, there might be no herring in our water bodies shortly.

Facts about Herring

  1. Herring often live together in various large schools and inhabit the water column, not the shore or near the bottom, of lakes and open oceans.  
  2. Herring have been in many parts of the world, including Europe, for over 1,000 years to preserve it for the winter.
  3. They provide nutritious food for many predators, including tuna, salmon, and cod.
  4. The population of herring varies significantly from year to year due to overfishing, pollution, and other factors.
  5. Herring reproduce sexually, and their young ones mature in about four years.


What is herring?

Herring are small fish with small heads and streamlined, beautifully colored bodies with silvery iridescent sides and metallic-hued backs. They belong to a family that consists of about 200 species. However, the most common species are the Atlantic, Pacific, and Araucanian. Due to their size, they feed on various zooplankton and phytoplankton. Many sea animals also depend on them for food.

Is herring the same as sardines?

Yes, you can use ‘herring’ and ‘sardines’ interchangeably because they mean the same thing. ‘Sardine’ means small fish. This fish was named after the second largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, Sardinia, because they were available in this place in plenty. For that reason, most people refer to these fish as sardines when they are young and small. However, once they mature, the name changes to herring.

Are herring nutritious?

Herring is more nutritious than many types of food. It provides huge quantities of lean protein. You get 20 grams of protein from a single 3-ounce serving of this fish. Herring contains many other valuable nutrients like Omega-3 fatty acids, calories, vitamin D, phosphorus, Vitamin B, and zinc. They also provide water.

What’s the difference between herring and mackerel?

While mackerel can be found in the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific oceans, herring can be found in both the North Atlantic and North Pacific. Herring and mackerel differ from one another visually as well. Herrings often have a pointed head, a silvery-blue color, and are smaller and thinner. The body of a mackerel is more streamlined and torpedo-shaped, and it is larger. They have a silver-white belly and a back that is blue-green with black bars.

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