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herring, common name for members of the large, widely distributed family Clupeidae, comprising many species of marine and freshwater food fishes, including the sardine (Sardinia), the menhaden (Brevoortia and Ethmidium), and the shad (Alosa). Herrings are relatively small but very abundant; they swim in huge schools, feeding on plankton and small animals and plants.
The adult Atlantic herring, Clupea harengus, found in temperate and cold waters of the North Atlantic, is about 1 ft (30 cm) long with silvery sides and blue back. It lays up to 30,000 eggs, which sink to the sea bottom and develop there; the young mature in three years. Other species lay their eggs in seaweed in shallow waters, and still others, the anadromous types, spawn in large rivers. Best known of these is the American shad, Alosa sapidissima. Another common anadromous herring is the alewife, A. pseudoharengus (14 in./37.5 cm), found along the Atlantic coast from Labrador to South Carolina and landlocked in Lake Ontario and the Finger Lakes of New York. The alewife and the blueback herring, A. aestivalis, which is thinner and a little shorter with a blue-black back, and found from Nova Scotia to Florida, are collectively known as river herring.
The menhaden, also called bunker or pogy, are fish of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of North America; they are not valuable as food fish. The Atlantic menhaden was used by Native Americans to fertilize their cornfields (its name is the Narraganset word for “fertilizing”). The vast majority of the menhaden caught is converted into oil and fish meal for dietary supplements, fertilizer, and fish and animal feed; they are also used for bait. Menhaden are also important as food for other wild fishes.
The skipjack, a streamlined, steel-blue shad 15 in. long, is found in the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. Its name, which is also applied to the much smaller and unrelated silversides and to a much larger and unrelated bonito (see tuna), describes any fish with a habit of leaping clear of the water.
Of the smaller food herrings and related species, the sardines are the most important. The true sardine from France, Spain, and Portugal is usually the young pilchard (Sardinia pilchardus) of Mediterranean and Atlantic coastal waters. The small European herrings (called sprats, or brislings) are cured without fermentation and are sold as Norwegian, or Swedish, anchovies and sardines. The name sardine is also applied to various small fish packed with oil or sauce in flat cans; the name sprat is sometimes applied to certain American species of commercial herring.
Sardine fishing and canning are an important industry in Maine, where small herrings are used, and in California, where the sardine is a pilchard of a genus (Sardinops) different from the European pilchard. The larger herrings are dried, smoked, salted, or pickled and sold in nearly all parts of the world under such names as bloaters, kippers, and red herrings. Many herring species have been overfished, and catch limits have been placed on some species. Herring species also fluctuate in response to natural conditions, e.g., warm water in the Pacific detrimentally affected the survival of young herring in the Canadian fisheries in the 1970s.
Herrings are classified in the phylum Chordata, subphylum Vertebrata, class Actinopterygii, order Clupeiformes, family Clupeidae.