Herrings

aka: Clupeids

Herrings (Order Clupeiformes) belong to a large family (Clupeidae) of about 200 species within fifty-four genera of cosmopolitan ray-finned fishes that are mostly marine; a few inhabit freshwater, and some are anadromous—that is, they migrate up rivers from saltwater habitats for purposes of spawning. The family includes herrings, menhadens, sardines, and shads. Most herrings are small fishes, generally being less than 300 mm (12 in.), but some may reach 750 mm (30 in.). Many are valuable food fishes and are collected for production of fish meal and oil, protein concentrate, and fertilizer. Some commercially important species include Atlantic herring (Clupea harengus) found in the north Atlantic, Pacific sardine (Sardinops sagax), and Atlantic menhaden (Brevortia tyrannus). In the fossil record, clupeid fossils from Europe date back to the early Cretaceous (120 million years ago). In western North America, clupeids are extremely abundant in deposits of the mid-Eocene (45 to 55 million years ago). There are four species of clupeid fishes in Arkansas, all commonly referred to as shads or herrings.

Morphologically, most members possess a fusiform body covered by shiny, silvery, and smooth cycloid scales (except on the head); a sharp ventral keel with saw-toothed projections; a single dorsal fin; and a deeply forked caudal fin. In addition, they have an adipose eyelid (transparent eye coverings with vertical slits), and small, flaplike projections (axillary processes) at the upper margin of the bases of the pectoral and pelvic fins. The lateral line is absent, as is an adipose fin.

Clupeids are mainly planktivorous feeders. They are also well known to have high fecundity, with the ability to spawn huge numbers of randomly deposited eggs (up to 300,000 in some species) near the surface of the water. There is no parental care, and the fry live among the plankton until they develop a swim bladder and transform into adults. The adults typically live in large schools and form bait balls that aid in protection from fish-eating predators such as sharks, other fishes, toothed whales, seals, jellyfish, and birds.

In Arkansas, there are four species of clupeid fishes. They are all commonly referred to as shads or herrings. Two species belong to the genus Alosa, and two others belong to the genus Dorosoma. None of them are considered important as food fishes; however, the shads are important forage species for larger predatory game fishes such as bass. All clupeids in the state are spring and early summer spawners.

The Alabama shad, Alosa alabamae, is a rare anadromous clupeid with few records in Arkansas—only from the Little Missouri, Mulberry, Ouachita, Saline, and White rivers. The most recent Arkansas record includes a total of thirty-four adult A. alabamae (thirty were released) from the mainstem Ouachita River, near Tate’s Bluff (Ouachita County). This shad spends most of its life in marine waters until ready to spawn, at which time it migrates into fresh water.

The upper sides and back are iridescent bluish-green, and the lower sides are silvery to silvery white. Dorsal fin rays number fifteen or sixteen, and anal rays are eighteen to twenty. The largest A. alabamae is about 457 mm (18 in.) in length with a maximum weight of 1.4 kg (3 lbs.). The Arkansas state record caught on rod and reel is a specimen from the Ouachita River that weighed 1.2 kg (2 lbs., 13 oz.).

Alabama shad (one to two years old) spawn thousands of eggs (40,000 to over 250,000) in late winter and early spring by ascending the Mississippi River and its major tributaries far inland, as well as other eastern drainages into the Gulf of Mexico. It spawns over coarse sand and gravel substrate in moderate current. Juvenile A. alabamae remain in freshwater until late summer and early fall, where they feed on small aquatic invertebrates. When they reach about 50 to 100 mm (2 to 4 in.) long, they return to the ocean and feed on small fishes. Lifespan is about three to four years.

Since the beginning of the twenty-first century, this fish has declined drastically throughout the freshwater portion of its range. The decline is thought to be due to a combination of alterations of habitat, including locks and dams blocking or impeding access to spawning sites, siltation, dredging, thermal alterations, and other adverse impacts on quality of water. According to the Nature Conservancy, A. alabamae is ranked S1–S2 (critically imperiled–imperiled) in Arkansas.

The skipjack herring (Alosa chrysochloris) occurs in the Arkansas, Mississippi, lower Ouachita, Red, and lower White rivers in the state. This herring is mainly a freshwater species but will occasionally venture into brackish and marine waters along the coast. In Arkansas, it is relatively common in the large rivers, where it can be found in open waters with swift current or in backwater areas of the lower Arkansas and Mississippi rivers.

The coloration of this herring is generally gray to an iridescent bluish-green dorsum with silvery white ventral and lateral sides. A longitudinal row of small dark dorsolateral streaks is occasionally found on some specimens, and a dark spot is present behind the upper operculum. There are 16 to 21 dorsal rays and 18 to 21 anal rays. Maximum size is 533 mm (21 in.) and weight 1.7 kg (3.5 lb., 12 oz.). The Arkansas state record caught on rod and reel is a specimen from Lake Dardanelle that weighed 1.2 kg (2 lbs., 10 oz.).

The skipjack herring is strictly a schooling fish, and adults are reported to feed on minnows and other small fishes, whereas the young prey on aquatic insects, particularly dipterans. Not much is known about its reproductive biology in Arkansas, but it is believed to spawn from early May to early July in the upper Mississippi River in the main channel over current with coarse sand and gravelly substrate. Spawning females may produce up to 300,000 eggs. Lifespan is about four years, and although they are not thought of as a good food fish because they are dry and bony, they are often caught by anglers in the Arkansas River. They are also commonly called “hickory shad” and “Tennessee tarpon.”

The gizzard shad (Dorosoma cepedianum) occurs statewide in Arkansas in all major river drainages, with its greatest abundance in reservoirs and larger rivers. It is a versatile species that is found in both clear and turbid waters. This shad travels in large schools in deep open calm waters but can also be found in strong currents. Elsewhere, along the coast, it will enter brackish or marine waters. In reservoirs, it has been reported to be overpopulated and compose up to eighty percent of the overall biomass.

This shad is mostly a silvery fish with its back and upper sides bluish-green. The upper sides may have horizontal dark streaks, and a large dark shoulder spot is present just behind the end of the operculum. There are ten to thirteen dorsal rays and twenty-nine to thirty-five anal rays; the last ray of the dorsal fin is an elongated thin filament. The maximum size is 520 mm (20.5 in.) and 1.6 kg (3.5 lbs.). The state rod-and-reel record from Arkansas is a specimen from the White River that weighed 1.2 kg (2 lbs., 14 oz.). The unrestricted tackle record is one taken from DeGray Reservoir that weighed 1.6 kg (3lbs., 7 oz.).

Gizzard shad spawn mostly at night in Arkansas from early April to May and deposit from 20,000 to 170,000 eggs in shallow backwaters or near the shoreline. The eggs are adhesive and sink to the bottom, attaching to anything they come into contact with; there is no parental care of the eggs or hatched young. Hatchling D. cepedianum feed on zooplankton and protistans, but once they reach juvenile size, they switch to phytoplankton (primary consumers on plant material) and larval aquatic insects. Adults prey on plankton and particulate matter and graze over substrates, ingesting detritus, sand, and ooze from the bottom.

Although gizzard shad are an excellent forage species for most native game fishes, they are not used as bait fish by anglers because they die quickly after handling. They are especially sensitive to rapid temperature changes and low oxygen content. These shad are also not considered a good food fish, and they are caught by hook and line.

The threadfin shad (Dorosoma petenense) is found mainly in the Coastal Plain lowland streams of Arkansas and throughout the Arkansas River. Stockings of D. petenense have been made in reservoirs (Beaver and Bull Shoals) of the Ozarks and some in the Ouachita Highlands. This shad inhabits moderate to large rivers where it is more abundant than D. cepedianum. Along the coast, it will travel into brackish and salt waters.

The color of D. petenense is similar to the gizzard shad, but the dark shoulder spot is noticeably smaller than D. cepedianum and present just behind the upper end of the operculum. It has fourteen to fifteen dorsal fin rays and seventeen to twenty-seven anal rays; the last dorsal ray is elongated. Unlike the gizzard shad, its fins (except the dorsal) are yellowish. The maximum length is about 203 mm (8 in.). As of 2020, no size record of this fish has been recorded in Arkansas.

The overall biology of this shad is similar to D. petenense. Reproduction is about the same, with up to 25,000 eggs produced by females in northwestern Arkansas reservoirs. Food is also similar, with adults eating large amounts of phytoplankton and zooplankton. Because D. petenense is less tolerable of cold waters, populations can be killed or even extirpated during severe cold winter months in some reservoirs. Like gizzard shad, it is important prey for large game fishes and is not considered edible by anglers.

Parasites reported from these fishes include several protists and helminths from A. chrysochloris, D. cepedianum, and D. petenense. However, no parasites have been reported from A. alabamae.

For additional information:
Baglin, Raymond E., Jr., and Raj V. Kilambi. “Maturity and Spawning Periodicity of the Gizzard Shad, Dorosoma cepedianum (Lesueur), in Beaver Reservoir.” Proceedings of the Arkansas Academy of Science 22 (1968): 28–43. Online at http://scholarworks.uark.edu/jaas/vol22/iss1/9/ (accessed September 3, 2020).

Boshung, H. T., and Richard L. Mayden. Fishes of Alabama. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2004.

Bowen, B. R., B. R. Kreiser, P. F. Mickle, J. F. Schaeffer, and S. B. Adams. “Phylogenetic Relationships among North American Alosa species.” Journal of Fish Biology 72 (2008): 1188–1201.

Bryant, H. E., and A. Houser. “Growth of Threadfin Shad in Bull Shoals Reservoir.” Proceedings of the 22nd Annual Conference of the Southeastern Association of Game and Fish Commission (1968): 257‒283.

Buchanan, Thomas M., William G. Layher, Chris T. McAllister, and Henry W. Robison. “The Alabama Shad (Alosa alabamae: Clupeiformes: Clupeidae) in the White River, Arkansas.” Southwestern Naturalist 57 (2012): 347‒349.

Buchanan, Thomas M., Josh Nichols, Don Turman, Colton Dennis, Stuart Wooldridge, and Brett Hobbs. “Occurrence and Reproduction of the Alabama Shad, Alosa alabamae, Jordan and Evermann, in the Ouachita River System of Arkansas.” Journal of the Arkansas Academy of Science 53 (1999): 21–26. Online at http://scholarworks.uark.edu/jaas/vol53/iss1/5/ (accessed September 3, 2020).

Burgess, G. H. Alosa alabamae (Jordan and Evermann), Alabama Shad.” In Atlas of North American Freshwater Fishes, edited by D. S. Lee, et al. Raleigh: North Carolina State Museum of Natural History, 1980.

———. “Alosa chrysochloris (Rafinesque), Skipjack Herring.” In Atlas of North American Freshwater Fishes, edited by D. S. Lee, et al. Raleigh: North Carolina State Museum of Natural History, 1980.

———. “Dorosoma petenense (Günther), Threadfin Shad.” In Atlas of North American Freshwater Fishes, edited by D. S. Lee, et al. Raleigh: North Carolina State Museum of Natural History, 1980.

Carter, F. Allen. “Fishes Collected from the Mississippi River and Adjacent Flood Areas in Arkansas, River Mile 770.0 to River Mile 816.0.” MS thesis, Arkansas State University, 1984.

Douglas, Neil H. The Fishes of Louisiana. Baton Rouge: Claitor’s Publishing Division, 1974.

Etnier, David A., and Wayne C. Starnes. The Fishes of Tennessee. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993.

Hatfield, J. S., T. E. Wissing, S. I. Guttman, and M. P. Farrell. “Electrophoretic Analysis of Gizzard Shad from the Lower Mississippi River and Ohio.” Transactions of the American Microscopical Society 111 (1982): 742‒748.

Helfman, Gene, Bruce B. Collette, Douglas E. Facey, and Brian W. Bowen. The Diversity of Fishes: Biology, Evolution, and Ecology. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2009.

Hoffman, Glenn L. Parasites of North American Freshwater Fishes. 2nd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.

Kilambi, Raj V., and Raymond E. Baglin Jr. “Fecundity of the Gizzard Shad, Dorosoma cepedianum (Lesueur), in Beaver and Bull Shoals Reservoirs.” American Midland Naturalist 82 (1969): 444‒449.

Megrey, B. A. “Dorosoma cepedianum (Lesueur), Gizzard Shad.” In Atlas of North American Freshwater Fishes, edited by D. S. Lee, et al. Raleigh: North Carolina State Museum of Natural History, 1980.

———. “Fecundity of the Threadfin Shad, Dorosoma petenense, in Beaver and Bull Shoals Reservoirs.” Transactions of the American Fisheries Society 98 (1969): 320‒322.

Mettee, M. F., P. E. O’Neil, and J. M. Pierson. Fishes of Alabama and the Mobile Basin. Birmingham: Oxmoor House, 1996.

Miller, Rudolph J., and Henry W. Robison. Fishes of Oklahoma. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004.

Page, Larry M., and Brooks M. Burr. Peterson Field Guide to Freshwater Fishes of North America North of Mexico. 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011.

Pflieger, William L. The Fishes of Missouri. Jefferson City: Missouri Department of Conservation, 1997.

Robison, Henry W., and Thomas M. Buchanan. Fishes of Arkansas. 2nd ed. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2020.

Robison, Henry W., David A. Neely, Uland Thomas, Kenneth E. Shirley, James K. Whalen, and Chris T. McAllister. “New Distributional Records and Natural History Notes on Selected Fishes from Arkansas.” Journal of the Arkansas Academy of Science 67 (2013): 115‒120. Online at http://scholarworks.uark.edu/jaas/vol67/iss1/20 (accessed September 3, 2020).

Ross, S. The Inland Fishes of Mississippi. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001.

Sanders, L. G., J. A. Baker, C. L. Bond, and C. H. Pennington. Biota of Selected Aquatic Habitats of the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System. Technical Report E-85-8. Vicksburg, MS: U.S. Army Engineer Waterways Experimental Station, 1985.

Thomas, Chad, Timothy H. Bonner, and Bobby G. Whiteside. Freshwater Fishes of Texas: A Field Guide. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2007.

Chris T. McAllister
Eastern Oklahoma State University

Last Updated: 09/03/2020

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