Atlantic Herring (Clupea harengus)

Atlantic Herring (Clupea harengus)

A member of the Clupeidae family of herring, the Atlantic herring is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s most numerous fish and is certainly one of the world’s most valuable fish. It is used by humans in a host of ways and is extremely important as forage for predator species.


The Atlantic herring is silvery with a bluish or greenish-blue back and an elongated body. The dorsal fin begins at about the middle of the body, and there are 39 to 47 weakly developed ventral scutes. At the midline of the belly are scales that form a sharp-edged ridge. Teeth on the roof of the mouth distinguish the Atlantic herring from the similar alewife.


Ordinarily less than a foot long, the Atlantic herring can grow to 18 inches. The all-tackle world record is a 1-pound, 1-ounce fish; a 3-pound, 12-ounce record stands for the skipjack herring.

Life history/Behavior

Atlantic herring usually spawn in the fall, although in any particular month of the year there is at least one group of Atlantic herring that moves into shallow coastal waters to spawn (Blueback and skipjack herring, which are anadromous, spawn in coastal rivers in the spring).

Almost 5 inches long by the end of their first year, Atlantic herring nearly double their length in 2 years and reach maturity at age 4 or 5. Schools of herring may contain billions of individuals. In the western Atlantic, herring migrate from feeding grounds along the Maine coast during the autumn to the southern New England–mid-Atlantic region during the winter, with larger individuals tending to migrate greater distances.


The Atlantic herring feeds on small planktonic copepods in its first year, graduating to mainly copepods.

Other Names

herring; Danish: Atlantisk sild, sild; Finnish: silakka, silli; French: hareng de l’Atlantique; German: allec, hering; Norwegian: sild; Polish: sledz; Spanish: arenque del Atlántico.


Atlantic herring are the most abundant pelagic fish in cool, northern Atlantic waters. In the western Atlantic Ocean, they are widely distributed in continental shelf waters from Labrador to Cape Hatteras and have been separated by biologists into Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank stocks. A related and similar species is the blueback herring (Alosa aestivalis), which ranges from Nova Scotia to Florida. The skipjack herring (A. chrysochloris) occurs in the Gulf of Mexico from Texas to the Florida Panhandle and ascends the Mississippi River and some of its tributaries.


This species schools in coastal waters and has been recorded in temperatures of 34° to 64°F.