About The Species
U.S. wild-caught Atlantic herring is a smart seafood choice because it is sustainably managed and responsibly harvested under U.S. regulations.
Above target population levels.
At recommended levels.
Fishing gears used to harvest Atlantic herring have minimal impacts on habitat.
Regulations are in place to minimize bycatch.
- According to the 2018 stock assessment, Atlantic herring are not overfished and are not subject to overfishing.
- In that assessment scientists used spawning stock biomass (the amount of fish in the population capable of reproducing) to estimate the Atlantic herring population at 517,930 metric tons, which is well above the target level of 157,000 metric tons.
- Herring populations are naturally highly variable.
- Atlantic herring are small schooling fish.
- They are silvery in color, with a bluish or greenish-blue back.
- Atlantic herring are one of nearly 200 herring species in the family Clupeidae.
- They grow quickly, up to 14 inches.
- They can live up to 15 years.
- They are able to reproduce when they reach age 4.
- Atlantic herring migrate in schools to areas where they feed, spawn, and spend the winter.
- They spawn as early as August in Nova Scotia and eastern Maine and from October through November in the southern Gulf of Maine, Georges Bank, and Nantucket Shoals.
- Female herring can produce 30,000 to 200,000 eggs.
- They deposit their eggs on rock, gravel, or sand ocean bottom.
- Schools of herring can produce so many eggs that they cover the ocean bottom in a dense carpet of eggs several centimeters thick.
- The eggs usually hatch in 7 to 10 days, depending on temperature.
- By late spring, larvae grow into juvenile herring, which form large schools in coastal waters during the summer.
- Atlantic herring is an important species in the food web of the northwest Atlantic Ocean.
- A variety of bottom-dwelling fish—including winter flounder, cod, haddock, and red hake—feed on herring eggs.
- Juvenile herring are heavily preyed upon due to their abundance and small size. A number of fish, sharks, skates, marine mammals, and seabirds prey on herring.
- Atlantic herring feed on zooplankton (tiny floating animals), krill, and fish larvae.
Where They Live
- Atlantic herring are found on both sides of the North Atlantic. In the western North Atlantic, they are found from Labrador to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.
- The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission coordinates management of the herring fishery in state waters, and the New England Fishery Management Council manages the fishery in federal waters. The two entities develop their regulations in close coordination. Individual states are responsible for implementing regulations recommended by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, and NOAA Fisheries is responsible for implementing regulations recommended by the New England Fishery Management Council.
- Managed under the Atlantic Herring Fishery Management Plan and Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Herring:
- An annual catch limit for the entire herring fishery based upon scientific information on the status of the stock.
- Managers divide the catch limit into four area-specific limits. When an area-specific limit is reached, the directed fishery in that area is prohibited and only incidental catches of herring are allowed.
- A limited access permit program limits the number of vessels that can participate in the directed fishery for herring. Vessels that do not qualify for a limited access permit can be issued an open access permit, allowing them to harvest a small amount of herring (6,600 pounds) per day or per trip.
- Limits on the amount of herring a vessel can possess in one day or on one trip, depending on the type of permit.
- The Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Herring contains measures that close areas to herring fishing when herring are spawning.
Recreational Fishing Regulations
Commercial Fishing Regulations
Altantic Herring Specifications, Quotas, and Possession Limits
2019 Atlantic Herring Specifications
Overfishing Limit (OFL)
Acceptable Biological Catch (ABC)
Annual Catch Limit (ACL)
Domestic Annual Harvest
Domestic Annual Processing
U.S. At-Sea Processing
Optimal Yield (OY)
Up to 3 percent of the stock-wide herring ACL can be set aside for use in research.
2019 Atlantic Herring Research Set-Aside
2019 Management Area Quotas
Vessels fishing for herring that are less than 165 feet in length overall, less than 750 gross registered tons, or less than 3,000 shaft horsepower may receive one of the herring permits listed below. Herring vessels exceeding the size and horsepower restrictions may receive a herring at-sea processing permit.
|Permit Category||Description||Possession Limit*|
|Category A||All Areas Limited Access||Unlimited in all areas|
|Category B||Areas 2/3 Limited Access||Unlimited in Areas 2/3; 6,600 lb per trip/day in Area 1A or 1B|
|Category C||Incidental Catch Limited Access||55,000 lb per trip/day in all areas|
|Category D||Open Access||6,600 lb per trip/day in all areas|
|Category E||Open Access**||20,000 lb per trip/day in Areas 2/3|
Slippage in the Atlantic herring fishery means discarded catch from a vessel issued an Atlantic herring permit that is carrying a NOAA Fisheries-certified observer or monitor prior to the catch being brought on board or prior to the catch being made available for sampling and inspection by a NOAA Fisheries-certified observer or monitor after the catch is on board. Slippage also means any catch that is discarded during a trip prior to it being sampled portside by a portside sampler on a trip selected for portside sampling coverage by NOAA Fisheries. Slippage includes releasing catch from a codend or seine prior to the completion of pumping the catch aboard and the release of catch from a codend or seine while the codend or seine is in the water. Fish that cannot be pumped and remain in the codend or seine at the end of pumping operations are not considered slippage. Discards that occur after the catch is brought on board and made available for sampling and inspection by a NOAA Fisheries-certified observer or monitor are also not considered slippage.
Midwater trawl herring vessels carrying an observer may not slip catch and must bring all catch aboard the vessel to make it available for sampling by an observer. Vessels may make test tows without pumping catch on board, provided that all catch from test tows is available to the observer when the next tow is brought aboard.
Exceptions from Slippage Prohibition
Limited Access herring vessels (Category A, B, C) may slip catch if:
- Pumping the catch aboard could compromise safety;
- Mechanical failure prevents the catch from being pumped aboard; or
- Spiny dogfish have clogged the pump and prevent the catch from being pumped aboard.
Slippage Consequence Measure
If a vessel issued any limited access herring permit slips catch, the vessel operator must report the slippage event on the Atlantic herring daily VMS catch report and indicate the reason for slipping catch. Additionally, the vessel operator must complete and sign this released catch affidavit form: (1) The vessel name and permit number; (2) the VTR serial number; where, when, and the reason for slipping catch; (3) the estimated weight of each species brought on board or slipped on that tow. A completed affidavit must be submitted to NOAA Fisheries within 48 hr of the end of the trip.
If a vessel issued a Category A or B Herring permit slips catch for any of the reasons described in the section above (see “Exceptions for Slippage Prohibitions”), the vessel operator must move at least 15 nm from where the slippage event occurred before deploying any gear again, and must stay at least 15 nm away from the slippage event location for the remainder of the fishing trip.
If catch is slipped by a vessel issued Category A or B Herring permit for any reason not described in the section above, the vessel operator must immediately terminate the trip and return to port. No fishing activity may occur during the return to port.
If you are fishing with midwater trawl gear in the groundfish closed areas or your limited access herring vessel is carrying a NOAA Fisheries observer, you must bring all catch aboard the vessel and make it available to the observer for sampling.
Minimum mesh size
Other Gear Restrictions
The use of midwater trawl gear is prohibited in Area 1A from June 1 to September 30.
Herring as Bait
Vessels may use pelagic gillnets to catch herring for use as bait. Pelagic gillnet gear is defined as a single gillnet not longer than 300 ft and not greater than 6 ft deep, with a maximum mesh size of 3 inches. The pelagic gillnet must be attached to the vessel and fished in the upper two-thirds of the water column.
Vessels fishing for tuna may not have on board purse seine, midwater trawl, pelagic gillnet, sink gillnet, or bottom trawl gear for catching herring as bait. Tuna vessels can purchase herring for bait without a herring permit provided they do not have these herring gears on board.
A vessel issued a herring permit may possess herring roe provided that the carcasses of the herring from which it came are not discarded at sea.
Herring Vessels Working Cooperatively
Each vessel working cooperatively in the herring fishery, including vessels pair trawling, purse seining, and transferring herring at-sea, must be issued a valid herring permit to fish for, possess, or land Atlantic herring and are subject to the most restrictive herring possession limit associated with the permits issued to vessels working cooperatively.
Herring Carrier Vessels
Atlantic herring carrier vessels operating under a letter of authorization or an Atlantic herring carrier VMS trip declaration may not possess, transfer, or land any species other than Atlantic herring, except that they may possess Northeast multispecies transferred by vessels issued either Category A or B Herring Permit, consistent with the applicable possession limits for such vessels.
Overfishing Definition/Status Determination Criteria:
Framework 6 to the Herring Fishery Management Plan (currently being drafted) would update the overfished and overfishing definitions for the herring fishery to make them more consistent with the most recent stock assessment in 2018. The current overfished and overfishing definitions are as follows:
If stock biomass is equal or greater than BMSY, overfishing occurs when fishing mortality exceeds FMSY. If stock biomass is below BMSY, overfishing occurs when fishing mortality exceeds the level that has a 50 percent probability to rebuild stock biomass to BMSY in 5 years (FThreshold). The stock is in an overfished condition when stock biomass is below ½ BMSY and overfishing occurs when fishing mortality exceeds FThreshold. These reference points are thresholds and form the basis for the control rule.
The control rule also specifies risk-averse fishing mortality targets, accounting for the uncertainty in the estimate of FMSY. If stock biomass is equal to or greater than 1/2BMSY, the target fishing mortality will be the lower level of the 80 percent confidence interval about FMSY. When biomass is below BMSY, the target fishing mortality will be reduced consistent with the five-year rebuilding schedule used to determine FThreshold.
Current Stock Status
In June of 2018, a new Northeast Regional Stock Assessment Workshop (SAW), reviewed by the Stock Assessment Review Committee (SARC), for herring was completed. The assessment concluded that although herring was not overfished and overfishing was not occurring in 2017, the stock was declining due to poor recruitment. The stock assessment estimated that recruitment had been at historic lows during the most recent 5 years (2013-2017). The final assessment summary report is available on the Northeast Fisheries Science Center website.
The assessment projected that poor recruitment of herring would likely result in a substantial decline in biomass, but that the biomass should increase after reaching a low in 2019 if recruitment returns to historic average levels. The SAW/SARC concluded that catch reductions would be necessary during 2018-2021 in prevent overfishing and to lower the risk of the stock becoming overfished. Based on stock assessment projections, NOAA Fisheries reduced the 2018 ACL to 49,900 mt to lessen the risk of overfishing (Table 3). This reduction was based on a 50% probability of preventing overfishing in 2018. NOAA Fisheries set this level based on the newly projected overfishing limit (OFL) for 2018 out of precaution to prevent overfishing while allowing the fishery to achieve optimum yield (OY).
The new specifications for the 2019-2021 fishing years were not yet in place January 1, 2019, so the amended 2018 specifications rolled over and became effective for 2019. Because the catch limits that rolled over were in excess of the OFL, the New England Council recommended and NOAA Fisheries enacted an inseason adjustment that reduced the rolled-over 2018 limits to acceptable levels for 2019. The adjustments reduced the OFL and ABC to 30,668 mt and 21,266 mt respectively for the 2019 fishing year, and reduced the ACL to 15,065 mt. These specifications will remain in place until Framework 6 (which includes the 2019-2021 specifications) becomes effective (expected in early 2020).
At their September 2018 meeting, the New England Council approved an ABC control rule in Amendment 8 to the Herring FMP that, if approved by NOAA Fisheries, would be used to set specifications for the herring fishery in future years. This control rule is a more conservative management approach than the interim control rule (used in previous specification cycles) because a portion of the available catch would be set aside to explicitly account for the role of herring as forage in the ecosystem. The ABC control rule would cap overall fishing mortality at 80% of the maximum sustainable yield (known as FMSY). Under previous control rules, herring harvest could occur at 100% of the FMSY.
Amendment 8 would also set up an inshore buffer that would disallow any midwater trawl vessels from fishing within 15 miles of shore in any water east/north of a perpendicular line extending due south from the border between Rhode Island and Connecticut. In addition, midwater trawl vessels would not be able to fish in boxes (i.e. 30 minute squares) surrounding Cape Cod (boxes 99, 100, 114, 115, and 123). Amendment 8 has not yet been reviewed or approved by NOAA Fisheries, but that decision is expected in late 2019.
2020 Stock Assessment and 2021-2023 Specifications
The Northeast Fishery Science Center has scheduled the next stock assessment workshop for Atlantic herring in June 2020. This stock assessment will inform development of the specifications for 2021-2023. It is anticipated that the 2021-2023 specifications will be completed and become effective in early 2021, and will thus replace the last year of the 2019-2021 specifications that are currently being finalized in Herring Framework 6.
Future stock assessments are schedule to continue on a biennial basis. As such, specification will continue to be developed every two years, although they will continue to set catch limits on a 3-year cycle. Changes to the third year of the specification cycle will be considered based on the results of the stock assessment.
How is this fishery managed?
The herring fishery is managed by a stock-wide annual catch limit (ACL) that is allocated to four distinct management areas (sub-ACLs, also known as management area quotas).
Who manages this fishery?
Herring is managed in federal waters by the New England Fishery Management Council and NOAA Fisheries. Herring is managed in state waters by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and individual states. Individual states may set different regulations, such as possession/landing restrictions or spawning area closures. If state regulations differ from federal regulations, herring permit holders must adhere to the more restrictive regulations.
What is the fishing year for this fishery?
January 1 – December 31
How often do the quotas change for this fishery?
Specifications are set every three years for the herring fishery. The specifications from the previous year roll over if specifications are not in place at the start of the fishing year.
What is the control date for this fishery?
September 16, 1999
What are the different management areas for the herring fishery?
Area 1A – Inshore Gulf of Maine
Area 1B – Offshore Gulf of Maine
Area 2 – South Coastal Area
Area 3 – Georges Bank
What time of year are Atlantic herring most commonly found?
The fishery generally follows herring as they migrate. Fishing in the southern portion of herring’s range (especially off of New Jersey) is common in the winter, while fishing on Georges Bank and in the Gulf of Maine is more common between May and November.
What is the geographic extent of the fishery?
Herring are distributed from North Carolina to Maine and from inshore to offshore waters to the edge of the continental shelf. The species is most abundant north of Cape Cod and become increasingly scarce south of New Jersey. The majority of the harvest comes from federal waters.
At what depths are herring found?
Adult Atlantic herring are found in shallow inshore waters, 20 meters deep, to offshore waters up to 200 meters deep.
What gear types are primarily used for herring?
Trawls (bottom and mid-water, single and paired), purse seines, gillnets, and weirs are the primary gears used by the commercial herring fishery.
1972-1976 – Herring is managed by the International Commission for the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries
1976-1978 – NOAA Fisheries regulates international fishing through a preliminary fishery management plan
1978 – United States adopts its own management plan to manage herring stocks on Georges Bank and in the Gulf of Maine, achieve higher levels of spawning biomass and stable recruitment, and rebuild the juvenile herring resource and sardine fishery in the Gulf of Maine
1982 – NOAA Fisheries rescinds the 1978 management plan because of conflicts between state and federal regulations
1982 – Herring is placed on prohibited species list, eliminating directed fisheries for the species by international fleets within the U.S. federal waters and requiring any herring bycatch be discarded
1983 – Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission adopts Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Herring
Mid-1980s – Georges Bank herring population begins to rebuild
1994 – Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission adopts a management plan for herring to address the growth of the herring resource and interest in Internal Water Processing operations
1999 – Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission adopts Amendment 1 to the herring management plan to complement the federal management plan in development at the time by the New England Fishery Management Council
2000 – NOAA Fisheries implements Federal Atlantic Herring Fishery Management Plan in conjunction with the New England Fishery Management Council
2006 - Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission adopts Amendment 2 to complement Amendment 1 in development at the time by the New England Fishery Management Council.
2007 – Amendment 1 implemented a limited entry for herring vessels, a seasonal purse seine/fixed gear only area in the inshore Gulf of Maine, a three-year specification process, and addressed other management measures for herring.
2008 – Amendment 2 implemented the Standardized Bycatch Reporting Methodology as a part of an Omnibus Amendment.
2011 – Amendment 4 implemented annual catch limits and accountability measures in the herring fishery.
2011 – Herring Regulatory Amendment implemented daily catch reporting for limited access herring vessels using vessel monitoring systems, weekly fishing vessel trip report reporting, and other catch reporting measures.
2013 – Framework 2 allowed the Council to split annual catch limits seasonally for the four Atlantic herring management areas, and carryover up to 10 percent of unharvested catch for each area's ACL.
2014 – Amendment 5 implemented measures revising fishery management program provisions (reporting, definitions, etc.); expanding vessel requirements associated with observer sampling; minimizing slippage; addressing the incidental catch and bycatch of river herring; and revising the criteria for midwater trawl vessel access to Groundfish closed areas.
2014 – Framework 3 established a process for setting river herring and shad catch caps in the herring fishery.
2015 - Amendment 6 established standards of precision for bycatch estimation for all New England and Mid-Atlantic fisheries.
2016 – Framework 4 implemented measures addressing slippage in the herring fishery.
2018 – Amendment 3 updated measures to protect Essential Fish Habitat for all federally managed species. This amendment modified some Groundfish Closed Areas, in some cases allowing the herring fishery greater access to these grounds.
2019 – Amendment 8 – The measures under consideration are intended to provide a long-term ABC control rule for the Atlantic herring fishery that will explicitly account for herring’s role in the ecosystem and to address the biological and ecological requirements of the Atlantic herring resource. Amendment 8 also considers measures to address potential localized depletion and user conflicts with possible detrimental biological and socioeconomic impacts on predators of herring and other user groups.
2019 – Industry-Funded Monitoring (IFM) Amendment – Would establish industry-funded monitoring for the herring fishery. IFM is proposed at a 50% combined coverage level (IFM coverage +SBRM/NEFOP coverage = 50%).
2019 – The Council has initiated a Framework action to address spawning on Georges Bank.