Herring or sild

Clupea harengus

Method of production — Caught at sea
Capture method — Drift net
Capture area — North East Atlantic (FAO 27)
Stock area — North Sea Autumn Spawners: North Sea, English Channel (East)
Stock detail — 4, 7d
Picture of Herring or sild

Sustainability rating three info

Sustainability overview

Updated: June 2020.

Fishing pressure on the North Sea Autumn Spawning stock is within sustainable limits. However, the spawning stock has declined by 50% since 2016 and fell below MSY BTrigger in 2020. There are currently no explicit management objectives for this stock and an EU-Norway management strategy is yet to be decided upon. Historically, catches have been above the Total Allowable Catch (TAC) and recent TACs have exceeded scientific advice, but in 2020 the TAC was set below the advised catch limits. A 2019 management strategy evaluation (MSE) found that the ICES MSY advice rule, with current FMSY and MSY Btrigger parameters, was found not to be precautionary. Further investigation is now required to establish if the current reference points need to be re-defined. This is a well targeted pelagic fishery, with few habitat impacts. The fishery has negligible levels of bycatch and rarely impacts Endangered, Threatened or Protected species. There are several fisheries for herring in this area certified as sustainable by Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). MSC certified herring is caught within the North Sea, Skagerrak and Kattegat. Look out for the ‘blue tick’, MSC certified products for a more sustainable consumer choice.


Herring belongs to the same family of fish (clupeids) as sprat and pilchard. It can grow to greater than 40 cm, although size differs between races (distinct breeding stocks). Most herring landed are around 25 cm. Herring are sexually mature at between 3-9 years (depending on stock) and populations include both spring and autumn spawners. At least one population in UK waters spawns in any one month of the year. Herring have an important role in the marine ecosystem, as a transformer of plankton at the bottom of the food chain to higher trophic or feeding levels, e.g. for cod, seabirds and marine mammals. It is also considered to have a major impact on other fish stocks as prey and predator and is itself prey for seabirds and marine mammals in the North Sea and other areas. Herring spawning and nursery areas are sensitive to anthropogenic or human influences such as sand and gravel extraction.

Stock information

Criterion score: 0.25 info

Fishing pressure on the North Sea Autumn Spawning stock is within sustainable limits. However, the spawning stock has declined by 50% since 2016 and fell below MSY BTrigger in 2020.

The spawning stock biomass (SSB) of North Sea Autumn Spawning (NSAS) herring has fluctuated between 1.5 and 2.7 million tonnes since 1998. SSB has declined >50% over the past 4 years, from 2,684,890 tonnes in 2016 to 1,287,790 tonnes in 2020. SSB has declined >15% since 2019, from 1,529,000 tonnes to 1,287,790 tonnes in 2020. SSB is now below the Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY Btrigger) of 1,400,000 tonnes, where specific management action is required to recover SSB above Btrigger. SSB (2020) was the lowest recorded since 1996. In 2020 the ratio of B:BMSY was 0.91. Fishing mortality (F) has been below FMSY (0.26) since 1996 and was 0.178 in 2019. In 2019 the ratio of F:FMSY was 0.77. Recruitment (R) has been below average since 2015. In 2020 R was >25% lower than the long term average and has been steadily reducing since 2018.

ICES advises that when the MSY approach is applied, catches in 2021 should be no more than 365,792 tonnes, the majority of which (359,367 tonnes) is assigned to the directed herring fisheries in the North Sea (ICES Subarea 4 and Division 7.d (A-fleet)). This is a 15% decrease in catch advice for 2020, owing to a reduction in SSB which is now below MSY Btrigger. This has resulted from a combination of factors, including, a 34% increase in catch advice in 2019, recruitment being relatively low since 2002 and F being maintained close to FMSY in recent years.

A 2019 management strategy evaluation (MSE) found that the ICES MSY advice rule, with current FMSY and MSY Btrigger parameters, was found not to be precautionary. Further investigation is now required to establish if the current reference points need to be re-defined.

The causes of low recruitment for this stock have not yet been quantified but there are concerns that spawning substrate and nursery areas are being disturbed by activities such as the extraction of marine aggregates (such as sand and gravel) and other activities (e.g. construction and offshore windfarm development) that have an impact on the sea bed and may therefore be expected to impact on herring spawning.


Criterion score: 0.5 info

There are management measures in place for this fishery but they are not precautionary. The stock has been decreasing and is now below sustainable levels.

The stock is jointly managed between the European Union (EU) and Norway but there is currently no agreed EU-Norway management plan, although, a Working Group has been set up by Norway and the EU to recommend a way of optimally and sustainably utilising the North Sea Autumn Spawning (NSAS) herring stock. This working group is due to report by September 2020. Following a joint request from the EU and Norway, ICES provided advice on the long-term management strategies of NSAS herring, but until new agreed management strategies become available, the MSY approach is used as the basis of ICES advice. However, recent management strategy evaluations found ICES MSY approach not to be precautionary. The probability of the spawning stock biomass being lower than the biomass limit was >5%. Consequently, further investigation is now required to establish if the current reference points need to be re-defined and in the interim ICES continue to use current estimated reference points for advice.

The fishery is divided into a number of different components, with Total Allowable Catches (TACs) and advice tailored to the different stock components. There are 4 fleets (A-D): A: directed herring fisheries in the North Sea (ICES areas 4 and 7d); B: bycatches of herring fisheries in the North Sea; C: directed herring fisheries in area 3a; D: bycatches of herring in 3a. Sub-TACs are provided for divisions 4c and 7d to account for the fact that the stock has several different spawning components in different areas. The A-fleet catches NSAS herring almost exclusively in Subarea 4 and Division 7.d. The B-, C- and D-fleets in Division 3.a catch a mixture of Western Baltic (WBSS) and NSAS herring. It has been agreed that Norway can transfer parts of its 3.a quota into the North Sea.

Given the current zero catch advice for WBSS herring, fleets C and D catch advise is zero owing to the fact that catches in 3.a can include WBSS herring. For 2020 projections, A-fleet in the North Sea which targets NSAS herring, is assumed to catch 3,184 tonnes of the WBSS herring stock, based on the average catch 2017–2019. D-fleet which targets sprat in Division 3.a is assumed to catch 123 tonnes, based on a 5.47% utilization of the 2020 TAC (average utilization 2017–2019) and 33.81% of WBSS in the catch (average split in Division 3.a 2017–2019). ICES advice is zero catch for WBSS; this implies that if the TAC for Division 3.a is set to zero in 2020, the catches of NSAS by the C- and D-fleets would also be zero. Yet, despite a zero TAC recommendation to protect WBSS herring, both C-fleet and D-fleet are still allocated a TAC, and in 2020, catch predictions (assuming no change in TAC and catches from 2019) estimate C-fleet to catch up to 5,550 tonnes and D-fleet to catch 241 tonnes. ICES advices that without additional area and seasonal restrictions on the herring fishery in the North Sea the catch of WBSS in the North Sea will be of a similar magnitude (~2,164 tonnes in 2018) in 2020.

In 2019, A-fleet and B-fleet TACs combined were 28% higher than advice and have been above advice since 2017. Between 2016 and 2019, catches have mostly been in accordance to the set TAC. Catches were 12% above the set TAC of 2019. For the first time since 2016, the 2020 TAC has not exceeded the advice, being set at 91% of the total advised catch. Discards are of negligible volumes (<1%) in comparison to the total catch. Discarding is illegal for Norwegian vessels, and slippage and high grading are now illegal for EU vessels if quota is still available and the fish are above Minimum Landing Size (MLS).

Beyond TACs, harvesting of NSAS herring is also controlled through legislation specifying closed areas for fishing and an EU MLS of 20cm for the human consumption fisheries (A-fleet) in the North Sea, (3cm above size of maturity at 17cm) and 18cm in Skagerrak/Kattegat. The industrial fishery is limited by a bycatch ceiling and a bycatch percentage, and slippage (discarding of catch prior to bringing it on board the vessel) and high-grading (discarding low-value fish to save quota for higher value fish) are banned for EU vessels. Discarding is banned for both EU and Norwegian vessels.

The UK is due to leave the EU on 31st December 2020, and new UK Fisheries legislation is being developed during 2020. MCS will update ratings with new management information when new legislation comes into force.

In the European Union (EU), EU fishing vessels can fish up to 12 nautical miles of any Member State coast, and closer by agreement. There is overarching fisheries legislation for all Member States, but implementation varies between fisheries, Member States and sea basins.

The EU Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) is the primary overarching policy. Its key environmental objectives are to restore and maintain harvested species at healthy levels (above BMSY), and apply the precautionary and ecosystem-based approaches to fisheries management. To achieve the MSY objective, the MSY exploitation rate is supposed to be achieved by 2020, but this seems unlikely to happen.

The CFP also introduced a Landing Obligation (LO) which bans the discarding at sea of species which are subject to catch limits. Some exemptions apply to species with high post-capture survival, and where avoiding unwanted catches is very difficult. These exemptions are outlined in regional discard plans. Despite quota ‘uplift’ being granted to fleets under the LO, available evidence suggests there has been widespread non-compliance with the policy, and illegal and unreported discarding is likely occurring.

Multi-Annual Plans (MAPs) are a tool for implementing the CFP regionally, with one in place or being developed for each sea basin. They specify fishing mortality targets and ranges for the main targeted species, as well as lower biomass reference points. If populations drop below these points it should trigger a management response. The MAPs also empower Member States to jointly apply measures such as closures, gear or capacity limits, and bycatch limits. There is concern however that the MAPs do not provide adequate safeguards to maintain all stocks at healthy levels.

The EU Technical Measures regulation addresses how, where and when fishing can take place in order to limit unwanted catches and ecosystem impacts. There are common measures that apply to all EU sea basins, and regional measures that vary between sea basins. Measures include Minimum Conservation Reference Sizes (MCRS, previously Minimum Landing Sizes, MLS), gear specifications, mesh sizes, closed areas, and bycatch limits.

The Control Regulation, which is being revised in 2019, addresses application of and compliance with the above, e.g. keeping catches within limits, recording and sharing data, and satellite tracking of vessels over 12 metres (VMS).

Capture Information

Criterion score: 0.25 info

North Sea Autumn Spawning (NSAS) herring are caught by drift nets in small scale inshore fisheries in the eastern English Channel, and by some larger vessels in the southern parts of the North Sea.

The fishery is well targeted, bycatch in small scale driftnets in the UK is minimal and has not merited a specific Council Regulation to mitigate against any impacts. Where incidental catch by driftnets does occur species may include anchovy and demersal stocks in the eastern English Channel, and mackerel, brill, mullet, smoothhound, black seabream and whiting in the North Sea. Interactions with Protected, Endangered or Threatened Species are low in this fishery. While, environmental issues with large scale driftnets are well known, small scale fisheries using driftnets are always ‘tended’, this greatly reduces bycatch in most cases. Bird entanglement can be an issue, but more research is needed to show where and how these interactions are taking place.

A potential ecosystem impact of the North Sea herring fishery is the removal of fish that could provide other “ecosystem services”. The North Sea ecosystem needs a trophic link to graze the plankton and act as prey for other organisms. If herring biomass is very low, other species, such as sandeel, may replace its role and it has been suggested that the shift from herring to sandeel as prey for seals along the English coast in the 1970s, resulted from the collapse of the herring stock. The interaction of herring with cod and Norway pout population dynamics has been alluded to and suggest that the current biomass of herring will prevent the recovery of the cod population even if fishing mortality on cod is reduced.

Drift nets are used mainly by UK fishermen, often on a small scale (some operate for less than 1 month), to catch pelagic species such as herring. Herring is also targeted by French driftnet boats. In 2014 the EU proposed a ban on all driftnets in European waters, as is already in place in the Baltic Sea, but this has met opposition on the grounds that the small scale UK herring drift net fisheries are low impact. There are EU limits on driftnet length and species that may be caught, but the illegal use of driftnets continues to be reported in EU waters (especially in the Mediterranean). However, driftnets for species such as North Atlantic salmon and herring tend to be specialised for the size and distribution characteristics of a single species. Most UK vessels are less than 12m long, nets may be 350 to 450 m and mesh size around 55 to 65 mm.

There is no evidence of bycatch or habitat impacts, but a 2013 report found that all the UK driftnet fisheries in the North-East Atlantic were in or close to Special Protected Area for overwintering or breeding bird species. These included overwintering populations of species that might interact with driftnets based on their feeding behaviour, such as great crested grebe, cormorant, and red-breasted merganser, and breeding populations of Manx shearwater, guillemot, and razorbill.

Because of their durability (driftnets are made of nylon), if lost the net can continue to fish, a phenomenon known as ‘ghost fishing’.


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