Pacific Herring | Oceana Canada

Canadian Marine Life Encyclopedia

Pacific Herring

Clupea pallasii pallasii

Also known as

sea herring, sild, hareng

Distribution

Throughout the North Pacific, ranging from Alaska down to Mexico

Écosystèmes/habitats

Pelagic to coastal in cold to temperate waters

Feeding Habits

Filter feeder

Conservation Status

Not listed

Taxonomie

Order Clupeiformes (herrings); Family Clupeidae (herrings, shads, sardines and menhadens)

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Pacific herring are a small and widely abundant fish that are very important to both the ecology and culture of Canada’s Pacific coast. Many other species rely on them for food, including larger fish, seabirds as well as marine and terrestrial mammals. Pacific herring also have significant value to communities, including First Nations. Some First Nations have stories and songs about herring that have been passed down to subsequent generations, demonstrating the long-term connection of Indigenous Peoples to this fish.

Pacific herring are a small, slender fish with an elongated body and highly forked tail. They are a silvery fish, with slight blue-green iridescence on their back, gradually becoming paler silver along their sides and then white-ish on their underbelly. Compared to the Atlantic herring, Pacific herring have lighter, almost translucent pectoral, pelvic and tail fins. They grow to be 25-45 centimetres in length; however, in recent years there have been shifts to smaller sizes of 20-25 centimetres.

Adult herring congregate in large schools containing millions of fish, where they forage in the open ocean. These large schools then migrate into and along the coast in the spring to spawn. One female can lay around 20,000 eggs. The eggs are deposited on seaweed, sea grass or rough rocks and, because the eggs are very sticky, they cling to these surfaces. The males will then swim overtop the eggs spreading their sperm, which turn the ocean a characteristic turquoise-blue colour. This spawning period typically lasts two to four days; the larvae will then hatch from the fertilized eggs 10 to 14 days later.

The larvae and juveniles will spend their first summer near shore and in shallow bays, moving into deeper waters in the fall. Pacific herring reach sexual maturity at three to four years old, at which time they will join the other adult herring in their seasonal migrations. They can live to be up to 15 years old, however most do not live much longer than eight years. 

Pacific herring have been harvested for thousands of years by First Nations communities, who typically harvested herring roe (eggs) by using anchored kelp fronds, eelgrass, or boughs of hemlock or cedar trees. They have been harvested for food, bait and roe in both commercial and First Nations fisheries using gillnets, purse seines and dipnets. Industrial scale harvesting began in the late 1870s, although the herring product that has been sought after has changed over time relative to shifting market demands.

Early commercial fisheries were for bait, but quickly shifted to reduction fisheries for oil and fertilizer. The reduction fisheries closed in the 1960s due to population collapses, but populations rebounded shortly after and led to the opening of roe fisheries in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The herring roe fishery has been the primary fishery since the 1970s, with the roe shipped to Japan in massive quantities, where it is seen as a delicacy.

Three of the five management Pacific herring stocks in British Columbia saw longstanding fisheries closures due to low population abundance, however these were re-opened in 2014/2015 despite resistance and concern from First Nations and scientists. This decline in abundance and in fisheries can be seen in the monetary value of the Pacific herring fisheries. In 1990, at the height of the roe fisheries, the Pacific herring fishery was valued at $73.1 million. As of 2014, it was valued at $11.6 million. 

Pacific herring harvested using purse seine is listed as a sustainable seafood choice.

Pacific herring have not been assessed by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). However, they have been assessed by Fisheries and Oceans Canada under the Precautionary Approach Framework. Scientific data for the five stocks is lacking and they have been assigned the status Unknown until appropriate reference points can be determined. Even so, abundance estimates have shown declines over the past couple of decades, with some slight increases over the past few years in three of the five stocks. 

Oceana Canada is working to protect Canada’s oceans for species like the Pacific herring. Find out more about our campaigns and join us in helping to bring abundance back to the ocean.