What is an Atlantic Herring?

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  • Written By: Steve R.
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 09 September 2019
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Atlantic herring (Clupea harengus), also known as the common herring, Atlantic sardine, and sperling, is a silver fish found that is plentiful in northern latitudes and has a lifespan of 15 years. The herrings live in large schools, and are one of almost 200 herring species in the Clupeidae family that contain a single dorsal fin situated in the midpoint of its body. Typically, the Atlantic herring grows to 17 inches (about 43 centimeters) in length and tips the scales at 1.5 pounds (about 0.7 kilograms). What sets the Atlantic herring apart from other species of herring is its collection of tiny teeth, organized in an oval-like fashion on the roof of its mouth.

Located in coastal and continental shelf waters in the North Atlantic Ocean, the fish are pelagic, meaning they spend the majority of their lives in the open sea, as well as along offshore banks. In the eastern Atlantic, herring can be found from the Baltic Sea to Iceland. In the western Atlantic, the fish are located from Greenland to South Carolina.


Females are capable of producing 30,000 to 200,000 eggs during their lifetime. Spawning occurs from late August to early November. Eggs are deposited on the sea floor, often on rocks, gravel, or sand. Within two weeks, the eggs hatch. By the end of their first year, a herring is about 5 inches (about 13 centimeters) in length, and doubles in size by its second year. By the age of 4 or 5, the herring reaches maturity.

During their lives, Atlantic herrings may migrate hundreds of miles. During the winter months, herrings migrate to warmer water. In the winter, many schools of herrings may unite.

The Atlantic herring, which feeds on zooplankton, krill, and fish larvae, has many predators since the fish is relatively small in stature and so plentiful in the ocean. Predators include sharks, skates, seabirds, and marine mammals. As the herring lays its eggs on the sea floor, the eggs are often eaten by bottom-dwelling fish such as cod, haddock, and flounder.

During the 1970s, the Atlantic herring's population declined due to heavy fishing. However, the population of the fish made a comeback in the 1980s thanks to imposed fishing regulations. The herring is valued for its source of omega-3s, B12, and iron. Herrings are often distributed frozen or canned as sardines across the globe. Fishermen also use the Atlantic herring for bait to catch crab, lobster, and tuna.


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