Herring: Species Spotlight

The herrings are a family of related schooling fish that occupy the Atlantic and Pacific oceans as well as the Baltic Sea. There are three species: the Atlantic (Clupea harengus), Pacific (Clupea pallasii), and the Araucanian, (Clupea bentincki). There are several other similar species also called herrings as well as subspecies. Within the larger family are the closely related shad, bluebacks and alewives, freshwater species that spawn in lakes and ponds.

herring nypl

These bountiful fish, eat plankton and live in schools comprised of hundreds of thousands or even millions of similar sized fish. When a school is threatened, they swim quickly in a tight circle called a “bait ball.” It is not uncommon for all manner of ocean life, from sharks and swordfish to tuna and whales to all feed on a school at the same time. The name of the fish originates from Old English and Germanic roots. Either from words describing their gray color, or from an Old High German word for “host” as in their enormous schools.

A compelling argument can be made that herrings, and their close relatives are the most important fish species in history. European fishermen have been harvesting these fish for centuries. What was not eaten by the local population became a valuable trade item. Considering the oily meat is very soft, it was not consumed fresh by most who ate it. This is true even today where smoking, salting and pickling are used to preserve the fish.

Smoked herring begins to appear in records around the 13th century and in the days before refrigeration, it had a distribution system second only to cod. An oft-quoted anecdote states how in the Middle Ages, preserved European herring could be found in markets as far away as Constantinople.

How Herring are Caught

NOAA 2002 trawl herring
Credit: NOAA

Herring species are intensely fished by humans besides being a forage fish for many species. Today the majority of the Atlantic herring harvest is caught by mid-water trawls or by purse seine. Populations have historically gone through boom-and-bust cycles. As of the 2022 assessment, NOAA has declared Atlantic herring as “overfished” but “overfishing is not occurring”. What that means is this stock is being harvested sustainably, but the population is much lower than the target number. The fishing season occurs off the US East Coast from the spring through the fall.

Pacific herring are also an important commercial species; however, is also under rebuilding programs along its range. Other historically important stocks in Alaska have been closed off for decades. Both Atlantic and Pacific species are also caught as bycatch in other fisheries, with hard caps on total bycatch allowed.

The Atlantic catch is sold fresh, frozen, and pickled for both domestic and foreign markets. Many of the tinned sardines in the US market are small herring, not true sardines. The catch is also a vital source of bait for the lobster fishery. The Pacific species fills a similar role, but is also harvested for its roe, which is exported to Asian markets.

Buying Herring

Because of the delicate and oily flesh, herring do not last very long, only a few days under ideal conditions. In not so ideal conditions, they deteriorate right before your eyes. Although it is not a common sight in most American fish markets, it also depends upon geography and culture. It is a fish that we should eat more of, but the strong flavor is not popular with the general public.

smoked herring

When you encounter fresh herring at a fish market, make sure to only choose fish that look like they were just caught. Unlike some other species, there is no way to mistake an old herring, they go limp and get so soft they start to fall apart. When in doubt, opt for flash frozen whole fish and prepare immediately after thawing.

Fresh or frozen fish can be baked, broiled, grilled, even fried but is perfect for smoking or pickling. Germany, Scandinavia and the Baltic countries all enjoy pickled and smoked herring served in various ways. Tins of smoked herring -kippers- and jars of pickled herring are often found in American supermarkets and specialty shops.

Herring is a small, oily fish with lots of flavor, so any similar fish would work as a replacement. Shad, which is a member of the same family, could easily takes its place. Trout is also a good, flavorful substitute. Mackerel would be another good alternative with a lighter flesh and slightly milder flavor. Herring smoked or fresh could also be a richer alternative to the popular whitefish of the Great Lakes region.

Historic Recipe: To Pickle Herrings or Mackerel (1725)

Take the Fish, and cut off the Heads and Tails, gut them wash them, and dry them well; then take two Ounces and a half of Salt-petre, three Quarters of an Ounce of Jamaica Pepper, and a quarter and half quarter of White Pepper, and pound them small; an Ounce of Sweet Marjoram and Thyme chopp’d small: Mix all together and put some within and without the Fish; lay them in an Earthen Pan, the Roes at Top and cover them with White wine Vinegar; then set them into an Oven, not too hot for two Hours This is for Fifteen; and after this Rule, do as many as you please.

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