What is a Herring?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 17 October 2019
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The term “herring” refers to a family of fish with many similar physical characteristics. All of the fish in this family are pursued by humans for food, as well as numerous other marine animals from large to small. As a result, many species are considered by many to be a crucial in the ocean, providing food to large numbers of animals in waters ranging from the frigid Arctic to the semitropical. Herrings and their characteristic large shoals have been written about and pursued by human fishermen for centuries.

Most herrings are small, and all of them are long and narrow to streamline rapid swimming and maneuvering. In addition, they have protruding lower jaws, a single dorsal fin, and soft fins without spines. The body of a herring is designed for swimming, which they do in shoals of hundreds of fish. Shoals can be identified by the flash of silver from the bodies of the fish, who move in unison pursuing plankton to eat.

These fish migrate up to 900 miles (1,500 kilometers) to spawn, laying clouds of eggs on the ocean floor to be fertilized. Depending on where the eggs are laid, they will hatch into small larvae within seven to ten days. The larvae drift with the ocean currents as they mature, eating small plankton and growing into juveniles called brit. Brit cling close to shore in large shoals, and provide fodder for many shore birds as a result.


Herrings mature in three to four years, depending on the species, and migrate and spawn several times over the course of their lives. They vary widely in size as adult fish, with some tropical species such as the tarpon growing up to eight feet (2.5 meters) in length, although remaining fairly slim.

Atlantic herring is one of the most widely pursued representatives of this family of fish, with fishing grounds on both sides of the Atlantic. It is caught and preserved in a number of ways. In England, for example, herrings are frequently kippered by being split, cleaned, and packed in salt. They are also pickled, fermented, and smoked by various European nations, and have been a popular fish product for centuries, especially among Catholics.

In addition to being high in Omega 3 acid, a valuable dietary supplement, herring do not store mercury and other toxins in their bodies as some species of fish do. This makes them a popular choice by health conscious consumers who want to avoid health problems associated with eating fish.

Some species are at risk, primarily because of overfishing. Many marine conservation organizations recommend consuming Atlantic herring, because it is the most plentiful species. Allowed time to recover, other herring populations could be safely eaten again as well.


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