Clupea harengusMelker(Also: Oriental cure; Pickling; Sea herring; Sild)

Geographic Range

Older references of Atlantic herring indicate that populations may move between different coastal regions after a number of years, disappearing off the coast of Norway, while showing up on the shores of Germany (Buffon, 1793). This process can be explained by climatic forcing of Atlantic herring migration occuring on a decadal cycle (Alheit and Hagen, 1997) as well as fluctuations in spawning caused by switches in recruitment in between northern and southern populations in the North Sea (Corten, 1999). (Alheit and Hagen, 1997; Buffon, 1793; Corten, 1999)

Clupea harengus are closely related to the Pacific herring Clupea pallasii pallasii, which resides mainly in the northern Pacific Ocean. Recent genetic evidence indicates that these two species diverged roughly 1.3 million years ago (Domanico, et al., 1996). (Domanico, et al., 1996)


Atlantic herring Clupea harengus are found in the palagic zone of marine waters, as well as coastal zones of throughout their geographic reach. (Bigelow and Schroeder, 1953; Buffon, 1793; "Herring Biology: What is a herring?", 2004; Jones, 1795; Leeuwenhoek, 1798)

(Note: the maximum depth value given is based on a value of 50 fathoms (Bigelow and Schroeder, 1953)). (Bigelow and Schroeder, 1953)

  • Range depth
    36.576 to 0 m
    120.00 to 0.00 ft

Physical Description

Clupea harengus grow to about 17 inches (45.72 cm) and can weigh up to 1.5 pounds (0.68 kg) (Bigelow and Schroeder, 1953; Gulf of Maine Aquarium, 2004d). Atlantic herring stocks in the Baltic Sea have recently seen significant decreases in weight-at-age in all age-classes with larger declines in northern populations than southern populations, and in younger age groups than in older groups (Cardinale and Arrhenius, 2000). The result of this decrease in weight-at-age could be indicative of a change in the average size of all Clupea harengus populations, or it may only be a case of Baltic Sea populations. (Bigelow and Schroeder, 1953; Cardinale and Arrhenius, 2000; "Herring Biology: What is a herring?", 2004)

Clupea harengus are laterally compressed, with a moderatly pointed nose, a large mouth at the tip of the snout, and a projecting lower jaw. They have a "saw-toothed keel" belly and a deeply forked tail. The keel is only weakly sawtoothed as compared to other members of its family. The dorsal fin is situated roughly midway down the back, and the abdominal fins are located almost directly below it. There is no adipose fin. The scales are large and loosely attached. The key anatomical difference between Clupea harengus and other members of the family is an oval patch of small teeth on the vomer bone at the center of the roof of the mouth (Bigelow and Schroeder, 1953). (Bigelow and Schroeder, 1953; Bigelow and Schroeder, 1953)

The body color is of a deep steel blue or greenish blue, with silver sides and belly. Ventral and anal fins are translucent white. The pectorals are dark at their base and along the upper edge. The caudal and dorsal fins are also dark(Bigelow and Schroeder, 1953). (Bigelow and Schroeder, 1953)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • Range mass
    0.68 (high) kg
    1.50 (high) lb
  • Range length
    45.72 (high) cm
    18.00 (high) in


Clupea harengus eggs are laid on rocky to sandy substrate, rarely on mud, from 3.7 m to 54.9 m on the North American side of the Atlantic. In Scandinavia, depths of 182.9 m have been recorded. Fertilization may take place in spring, summer, or autumn, according to locality and subtype of Atlantic herring (Bigelow and Schroeder, 1953). (Bigelow and Schroeder, 1953)

Incubation lasts anywhere from 10 to 40 days, depending on local water temperatures. Colder temperatures (roughly 3.3 deg C) indicate a longer incubtion time. Incubation can take place in water temperatures of up to 15 deg C. Temperature ranges above and below these limits produced no viable hatchings (Bigelow and Schroeder, 1953). (Bigelow and Schroeder, 1953)

At the time of hatching, Clupea harengus are about 6 mm long. Their small yolk sack is usually completely absorbed by the time they reach 10 mm in length. At 15 to 17 mm, the dorsal fin forms. The anal fin forms when Atlantic herring reach about 30 mm. Ventral fins become visible at 30 to 35 mm. The tail becomes well-forked at around this length as well. Only when Atlantic herring reach 40 mm do they start to fully resemble mature herring (Bigelow and Schroeder, 1953). (Bigelow and Schroeder, 1953)

At roughly 2 years of age, Clupea harenga are about 19 to 20.5 cm in length, and start to accumulate large amounts of fat in the body tissue and viscera during warm months. This fat is lost in the winter and at the approach of sexual maturity (Bigelow and Schroeder, 1953). (Bigelow and Schroeder, 1953)


Atlantic herring aggregate into massive schools in the late summer and early fall. In the western Atlantic, they move into coastal waters at various locations in the Gulf of Maine and offshore banks of Nova Scotia to spawn. Spawning times vary for different populations of Atlantic herring. ("Herring Biology: Ecology", 2004)

Clupea harengus uses external fertilization of eggs. As female herring release eggs, male herring release clouds of milt simultaneously. Herring are fat prior to spawning, after months of eating plankton blooms. ("Herring Biology: Ecology", 2004)

Mature eggs make up a large portion (20%+) of the female's body weight. The fecundity of herring females is typically in the range of 20,000-50,000 eggs per female, although a large female herring can lay as many as 200,000 eggs. Herring are iteroparous and generally live to spawn repeatedly for several years. After spawning, their weight declines with the loss of gametes and associated fat content. ("Herring Biology: Ecology", 2004)

  • Breeding interval
    Atlantic herring usually spawn after reaching 25.5cm.
  • Breeding season
    Atlantic herring may spawn in spring, summer, or autmn, depending on local conditions and the subspecies of herring.
  • Range number of offspring
    200000 (high)
  • Average number of offspring
  • Range time to hatching
    10 to 40 days
  • Average time to hatching
    11 days
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    3 to 6 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    4 years
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    3 to 6 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    4 years

There is no evidence that Atlantic herring invest any energies toward parenting after they spawn.

  • Parental Investment
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning


Clupea harengus may live up to 20 years.


Atlantic herring aggregate into massive schools in the late summer and early fall. In the western Atlantic, they move into coastal waters at various locations in the Gulf of Maine and offshore banks of Nova Scotia to spawn (Gulf of Maine Aquarium, 2004c). ("Herring Biology: Ecology", 2004)

Communication and Perception

Although little is known of the behavioral reasons behind their noise productions, Clupea harengus are known to produce and perceive sounds. Noise is usually produced at night by is probably the result of forceful ejection of air from the anal duct. The frequency of noise production did not change due to feeding. This noise production tends to increase with increasing numbers of herring in a school, leading to speculation that there is a social component to noise production (Wilson, Batty, and Dill, 2003). (Wilson, et al., 2003)

Food Habits

In the late 1700s, Leeuwenhoek hypothesized that Clupea harengus was a plankton feeder, stating that "Seeing these things, I did not wonder that fishermen should imagine Herrings have no food in their stomachs, because Herrings do, in my opinion, feed on such small fishes ["animacules"], that they cannot take in sufficient quantities of them to distend their stomachs, as we see in other fish; and hence it is said, that Herrings have no food in within their stomachs." (Leeuwenhoek, 1798) (Leeuwenhoek, 1798)

With the advent of better microscopes and observational techniques, it was found that plankton (the "animaclues" of Leeuwenhoek's time) that Clupea harengus feeds upon, starting with larval snails, diatoms, peridinians when first hatched, moving on to copepods, amphipods, pelagic shrimps, and decapod crustacean larvae when they reach adulthood (Bigelow and Schroeder, 1953). (Bigelow and Schroeder, 1953)

  • Animal Foods
  • fish
  • eggs
  • mollusks
  • aquatic or marine worms
  • aquatic crustaceans
  • other marine invertebrates
  • zooplankton


As Atlantic herring are the prey species of many species of fish, mammals, and birds, herring are almost always found in schools (Bigelow and Schoreder, 1953). Some schools display elaborate patterns (Gulf of Maine Aquarium, 2004b). These schools may be quite large, stretching several miles in length and visibly darkening the waters (Jones, 1795). (Bigelow and Schroeder, 1953; "Herring Biology: Life-Cycle", 2004; Jones, 1795)

Clupea harengus is a prey species of cod, pollock, haddock, silver hake, striped bass, mackerel, tuna, salmon, dogfish (Bigelow and Schroeder, 1953), harbor porpoises Phocoena phocoena, harbor seals Phoca vitulina, gray seals Halichoerus grypus, Atlantic puffins Fratercula arctica, razorbills Alca torda, common terns Sterna hirundo, arctic terns Sterna arctica, killer whales, baleen whales (Gulf of Maine Aquarium, 2004b), and humans Homo sapiens. (Bigelow and Schroeder, 1953; "Herring Biology: Life-Cycle", 2004)

Ecosystem Roles

Herring are a critical part of the Atlantic ecosystem, being a prey species for a large variety of species. They are pelagic plankton feeders (Gulf of Maine Aquarium, 2004b). ("Herring Biology: Life-Cycle", 2004)

Atlantic herring are also the host of several parasitic species. In a study of 220 Norwegian spring spawning herring, Tolonen and Karlsbakk (2002) detected 11 parasitic species: the coccodians Goussia clupearum and Eimeria sardinae, spores of the myxozoan Ceratomyxa auerbachi, adult trematodes Hemiurus spp., adult and larval nematodes Hysterothylacium aduncum and Anisakis simplex, and Cryptocotyle lingua metacercarial infections. (Tolonen and Karlsbakk, 2003)

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Herring fisheries in both Europe and North America have been important sources of protein in diets going back centuries. Jones (1795) indicates that the Dutch fishery dates back to 1167, and Alheit and Hagen (1997) indicate the presence of a Swedish fishery dating back to the 10th Century. In North America, the Native Americans were the first ones to use a system of weirs to catch herrings, as they were difficult to catch using the traditional methods of hook or spear (Gulf of Maine Aquarium, 2004). (Jones, 1795)

The love of Atlantic herring as a foodstuff in Britain was well captured by Jones (1795): "Yarmouth has long been famous for its herring [fare], which was regulated by an act in the 31st [year] of Edward the Third: and that town is obliged, by its charter, to send to the sheriffs of Norwich 100 herrings, to be made into twenty-four pies, by them to be delivered to the lord of the manor of East Carleton, who is to convey them to the king." (Jones, 1795)

The Atlantic fishery continues to be a popular, if not a highly economic, one. In 2001, the New England herring fishery had an estimated total value of $15,615,237 in U. S. dollars (Parker, 2003). Similar fisheries are found throughout the range of Clupea harengus. (Parker, 2003)

The nutritional information for raw Atlantic herring is: 158 Calories/100g, 17.96g protien/100g, 0.0g carbohydrate/100g, 2.04g saturated fatty acid/100g, 3.736g monosaturated fatty acid/100g, 2.133g polyunsaturated fatty acid/100g ("Calories In Herring", 2004)

  • Positive Impacts
  • food
  • research and education

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Before large-scale fishing operations started in North America, the vastness of the shoals of Atlantic herring "became absolutely a nuisance" in the Chesapeake Bay area (Buffon, 1793). Clupea harengus can be very susceptible to pollution and being beached during large storms. Bigelow and Schoreder (1953) describe a "slaughter of herring" that started in October 5, 1920 and resulted in a tidal harbor becoming completely covered with dead herring. The large anoxic zone resulting from the decomposition of the massive number of dead herring caused even more fish kills. (Bigelow and Schroeder, 1953; Buffon, 1793)

Conservation Status

Clupea harengus is not an endangered species. However, with heavy fishing in the 1960s and a lack of recruitment in the 1970s, Atlantic herring fisheries crashed. Although the fishery recovered since then, its vulnerability, especially with increased potential of climate variability has lead the several countries to conduct studies looking at sustainable herring harvests (Alheit and Hagen, 1997). (Alheit and Hagen, 1997)

Other Comments

The following is a late 18th Century English recipe for herring pie, perhaps similar to the one required of the city of Yarmouth in its city charter. The author of this taxon account adds this recipe ONLY as proof that herring have been used in a variety of different foodstuffs for some time throughout history, and NOT as a suggestion for any future meal.

"A HERRING PYE: Scale, gut, and wash them very clean, cut off the heads, fins, and tails; make a good crust, cover your dish, then season your herrings with beaten mace, pepper and salt; put a little butter in the bottom of your dish, then a row of herrings; pare some apples, and cut them in thin slices all over, then peel some onions, and cut them in slices all over thick, lay a little butter on the top, put in a little water, lay on the lid, and bake it well." (Gellory, 1762) (Gelleroy, 1762)


Shaw Lacy (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, William Fink (editor, instructor), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Renee Sherman Mulcrone (editor).


Atlantic Ocean

the body of water between Africa, Europe, the southern ocean (above 60 degrees south latitude), and the western hemisphere. It is the second largest ocean in the world after the Pacific Ocean.

World Map


uses sound to communicate

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate


the nearshore aquatic habitats near a coast, or shoreline.


used loosely to describe any group of organisms living together or in close proximity to each other - for example nesting shorebirds that live in large colonies. More specifically refers to a group of organisms in which members act as specialized subunits (a continuous, modular society) - as in clonal organisms.


animals which must use heat acquired from the environment and behavioral adaptations to regulate body temperature

external fertilization

fertilization takes place outside the female's body


union of egg and spermatozoan


A substance that provides both nutrients and energy to a living thing.


having a body temperature that fluctuates with that of the immediate environment; having no mechanism or a poorly developed mechanism for regulating internal body temperature.


a distribution that more or less circles the Arctic, so occurring in both the Nearctic and Palearctic biogeographic regions.

World Map

Found in northern North America and northern Europe or Asia.

intertidal or littoral

the area of shoreline influenced mainly by the tides, between the highest and lowest reaches of the tide. An aquatic habitat.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).


makes seasonal movements between breeding and wintering grounds


having the capacity to move from one place to another.


specialized for swimming

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


generally wanders from place to place, usually within a well-defined range.


reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.


An aquatic biome consisting of the open ocean, far from land, does not include sea bottom (benthic zone).


photosynthetic or plant constituent of plankton; mainly unicellular algae. (Compare to zooplankton.)


an animal that mainly eats plankton


the kind of polygamy in which a female pairs with several males, each of which also pairs with several different females.

saltwater or marine

mainly lives in oceans, seas, or other bodies of salt water.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


associates with others of its species; forms social groups.


uses touch to communicate


uses sight to communicate

year-round breeding

breeding takes place throughout the year


animal constituent of plankton; mainly small crustaceans and fish larvae. (Compare to phytoplankton.)

References 2004. "Calories In Herring" (On-line). Accessed October 26, 2004 at

Gulf of Maine Aquarium. 2004. "Herring Biology: Distribution" (On-line). Accessed October 26, 2004 at

Gulf of Maine Aquarium. 2004. "Herring Biology: Ecology" (On-line). Accessed October 26, 2004 at

Gulf of Maine Aquarium. 2004. "Herring Biology: Life-Cycle" (On-line). Accessed October 26, 2004 at

Gulf of Maine Aquarium. 2004. "Herring Biology: What is a herring?" (On-line). Accessed October 26, 2004 at

Gulf of Maine Aquarium. 2004. "Herring Harvest: Fixed Gear Fishery - Herring Weirs in the Gulf of Maine" (On-line). Accessed October 26, 2004 at

Alheit, J., E. Hagen. 1997. Long-term climate forcing of European herring and sardine populations. Fisheries Oceanography, 6:2: 130-139.

Bigelow, H., W. Schroeder. 1953. Fishes of the Gulf of Maine. FISHERY BULLETIN OF THE FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE, 74: 88-99. Accessed October 26, 2004 at

Buffon, G. 1793. Natural history of birds, fish, insects and reptiles. Embellished with upwards of two hundred engravings. In five volumes. .... London: J.S. Barr.

Cardinale, M., F. Arrhenius. 2000. Decreasing weight-at-age of Atlantic herring (Clupea harengus) from the Baltic Sea between 1986 and 1996: a statistical analysis. ICES Journal of Marine Science, 57: 882-893.

Corten, A. 1999. The reappearance of spawning Atlantic herring (Clupea harengus) on Aberdean Bank (North Sea) in 1983 and its relationship to environmental conditions. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, 56: 2051-2061.

Domanico, M., R. Phillips, J. Schweigert. 1996. Sequence variation in ribosomal DNA of Pacific (Clupea pallasii pallasii) and Atlantic herring (Clupea harengus). Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, 53: 2418-2423.

Gelleroy, W. 1762. The London cook, or the whole art of cookery made easy and familiar. Containing a great number of approved and practical receipts in every branch of cookery.. London: S. Crowder, and Co., J. Coote; and J. Fletcher.

Jones, S. 1795. A natural history of fishes, and of reptiles, insects, waters, earths, fossils, ... compiled from the best authorities, and illustrated by a great variety of copper plates, .... London: E. Newberry.

Leeuwenhoek, A. 1798. The select works of Antony Van Leeuwenhoek, containing his microscopical discoveries in many of the works of nature. Translated from the Dutch and Latin editions published by the author, by Samuel Hoole. .... London: Henry Fry.

Parker, P. 2003. "CCCHFA Atlantic Herring Scoping Comments" (On-line). Accessed October 26, 2004 at

Tolonen, A., E. Karlsbakk. 2003. The parasite fauna of the Norwegian spring spawning herring (Clupea harengus L.). ICES Journal of Marine Science, 60: 77-84.

Wilson, B., R. Batty, L. Dill. 2003. Pacific and Atlantic herring produce burst pulse sounds. Proceeding of the Royal Society of London B, Supplement: S1-S3. Accessed November 11, 2004 at