Atlantic herring (Clupea harengus)

Atlantic herring shoal
Loading more images and videos...

Atlantic herring fact file

Atlantic herring description


Many people will be familiar with the Atlantic herring (Clupea harengus) as, for many years, it has been a staple of the fishmonger's slab. It is a shoaling fish and has the classical fish shape, and is silvery and streamlined. It has a single dorsal fin, and pelvic fins positioned slightly in front of the line of the dorsal fin. The pectoral fins, like the others on the fish, are soft and not stiff and 'bony' like on many other fishes. The lower jaw protrudes forward of the upper lip, and there is no visible lateral line. The body is deeper than it is wide, improving the streamlining, and the tail is deeply forked. The colouring of the body overall is silver, but closer inspection reveals that there is a darker blue iridescence over the upper half of the body, whilst the underside is paler. This colouration is called 'countershading', and provides a way of camouflaging the fish from attacks by its many predators from all angles.

Gendarme, Hareng, Hareng Atlantique, Hareng de l'Atlantique, Hareng Saur.
Arenque, Arenque del Atlántico, Escabeche Frito.
Maximum adult weight: 0.68 kg
Adult body length: up to 40 cm

Atlantic herring biology

Herrings feed mainly on small oceanic shrimps or copepods and can filter-feed if there are sufficient densities of its prey to allow this.

Individuals reach maturity between the ages of three and nine years. At any month of the year, one of the many populations scattered across its vast range will be spawning. The eggs are sticky and are laid on marine vegetation or the seabed. Fish in the North Sea spawn between January and April at a depth of no more than 70 metres and a sea temperature of four to seven degrees Celcius.


Atlantic herring range

The Atlantic herring is found over much of the northern part of the Atlantic Ocean, from the Bay of Biscay northward to Iceland and southern Greenland. It extends north-eastward to Spitzbergen and Novaya Zemlya in the Arctic Ocean, as well as into the Baltic. To the west, it ranges along the east coast of North America, from south-western Greenland and Labrador, down to South Carolina. Around UK waters, the Atlantic herring occurs in the English Channel, the Irish Sea and the North Sea. There are a number of different races of the fish, found across its eastern range, in the Baltic and North Sea, and in Norwegian and Icelandic waters. The various races spawn at different times of the year.

You can view distribution information for this species at the National Biodiversity Network Atlas.

Atlantic herring habitat

This species is 'pelagic' in its distribution throughout the ocean, in the surface waters down to a depth of about 200 metres. These fish stay away from the immediate coastal areas outside the spawning season. Herring avoid the deeper parts of the ocean, and are often found in vast surface shoals, covering several square kilometres of water.


Atlantic herring status

The Atlantic herring is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1). Not subject to specific protection, but listed by the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas (ICES) as below Safe Biological Limits (SBL).

IUCN Red List species status – Least Concern


Atlantic herring threats

The biggest threat to this species is over-harvesting by the fishing fleets of many nations. Although the herring is still a relatively numerous species, it is now feared that there more are being caught by trawlers than can reproduce annually, particularly in European waters. Domestic pressure on governments to support their fishing industries has led to overfishing, and agreed quotas being exceeded, depleting populations of herring across much of its range.


Atlantic herring conservation

The Atlantic herring is listed in the UK Biodiversity Grouped Action Plan for commercial marine fish. Being a species that is found in international waters, it has proved very difficult to impose restrictions on the number of fish that can be harvested from the sea without reducing fish stocks below the important Safe Biological Figure (SBF) limits.

During the 1960s, the herring population in parts of the north Atlantic collapsed catastrophically, virtually wiping out the Icelandic herring industry, and posting a warning sign about the fragility of the marine environment. The chief cause was overfishing and, following the creation of a management plan in 1975, the Icelandic herring industry became the first to be subject to a total allowable catch (TAC) restriction. Since then, in this part of the Atlantic, herring fish stocks have recovered to sustainable levels, and the experience should serve as a lesson as to what could happen to other commercially important species.

Whilst Atlantic populations of herring are currently considered to be above the SBF, those in the North Sea are giving cause for concern. Figures suggest that reproduction of many commercial fish species fell to an all-time low in the 1990s. Although populations now seem to be recovering, the herring is still covered in the part of the UK Grouped Action Plan specifically relating to North Sea fish stocks. However, it remains to be seen whether implementing the rules and recommendations in the current Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) will allow population levels to stabilise and recover. One effect of the CFP has been to remove the inefficient fishing boats from the fleets, allowing heavy overfishing by the 'factory' trawlers. This, coupled with the pressure on individual governments to support their country's own fishing fleets, has led to the harvesting of 'black fish', illegal catches above and beyond a country's legal quota, and this is still taking its toll on herring populations.

There may be further information about this species available via the National Biodiversity Network Atlas.
The UK Biodiversity Action Plan for this species is available at UK BAP.
View information on this species at the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre.

Find out more

For more information on the Atlantic herring and other fish species:



Information supplied by English Nature.



Large and diverse group of minute marine and freshwater crustaceans belonging to the subclass Copepoda. They usually have an elongated body and a forked tail.
A type of camouflage most often exhibited by aquatic animals where an individual’s underside is light and upperparts are dark, causing it to blend in against light coming from the surface and the dark ocean below and protect it from predators or prevent it being seen by its prey.
Dorsal fin
The unpaired fin found on the back of the body of fish, or the raised structure on the back of most cetaceans.
Lateral line
A row of receptors that can detect movement via vibrations in water. The receptors are typically embedded in the skin, and in fish they form a line along the sides of the body.
Pectoral fins
In fish, the pair of fins that are found one on each side of the body just behind the gills. They are generally used for balancing and braking.
Pelvic fins
In fish, the pair of fins found on the underside of the body.
The production or depositing of large quantities of eggs in water.


  1.  IUCN Red List (March, 2011)

Image credit

Atlantic herring shoal  
Atlantic herring shoal

© Sue Scott /

Getty Images
101 Bayham Street
United Kingdom
Tel: +44 (0) 800 376 7981


Link to this photo

Arkive species - Atlantic herring (Clupea harengus) Embed this Arkive thumbnail link ("portlet") by copying and pasting the code below.

Terms of Use - The displayed portlet may be used as a link from your website to Arkive's online content for private, scientific, conservation or educational purposes only. It may NOT be used within Apps.

Read more about



MyARKive offers the scrapbook feature to signed-up members, allowing you to organize your favourite Arkive images and videos and share them with friends.

Play the Team WILD game:

Team WILD, an elite squadron of science superheroes, needs your help! Your mission: protect and conserve the planet’s species and habitats from destruction.

Conservation in Action

Which species are on the road to recovery? Find out now »

This species is featured in:

This species is found in the North Atlantic islands

This species is featured in:

This species is featured in the Arctic eco-region

Help us share the wonders of the natural world. Donate today!


Back To Top