Mackerel vs Herring

When exploring the differences between mackerel and herring, it’s essential to consider both their culinary uses and their nutritional profiles.

Mackerel is known for its rich taste and meatier texture, providing a hearty option for meals. It’s a larger fish, with species varying in size, some weighing up to 4 pounds.

Mackerel boasts a higher calorie count, with about 262 calories per 100 grams. As a predator, it plays a different role in the marine ecosystem compared to herring, affecting its behavior and diet.

Mackerel and herring swim in a chaotic, fast-paced chase, weaving through the shimmering blue depths of the ocean

On the other side, herring stands out in traditional Nordic diets and is recognized for its impressive omega-3 fatty acids content, surpassing even that of mackerel, trout, and sardines.

With more than 1,400 mg of omega-3s per 3 ounces, herring is also an excellent source of vitamin D and selenium. Typically smaller in size, herring are found in schools and can range from 6 inches to, in some cases, 12 inches in length. In the kitchen, you might encounter them canned, cured, or smoked, adding variety to their consumption.

Physical Characteristics

Two fish swim side by side, mackerel with sleek, torpedo-shaped bodies and iridescent blue and green scales, while herring have slender, silvery bodies with a bluish-green back and a silver-white belly

In this section, you will find detailed comparisons focusing on the physical attributes of mackerel and herring, specifically their size, shape, and appearance.

Size and Shape

When examining mackerel species, such as the Atlantic mackerel (Scomber scombrus), you observe that they usually measure more significantly in length than herrings.

An Atlantic mackerel typically reaches about 16 ½ inches (42 cm) in length and has a rounded, torpedo-like body profile.

On the other hand, herring species, including the Atlantic herring (Clupea harengus), generally have smaller statures, often ranging in length from 6 to 15 inches (15 to 38 cm). Herrings are characterized by their small head and notably more delicate body structure compared to the stout mackerel.


Mackerels showcase a distinct appearance with a series of wavy, black stripes running across their dark, blue-green backs. This pattern adds to their streamlined look, accompanied by a forked tail which aids in agile swimming.

In contrast, herrings possess a more understated appearance. Their bodies are typically covered with small, delicate scales that reflect a silvery iridescence.

Thoughtfully, the back of a herring has a bluish-green tint, lacking the pronounced striping seen in mackerels.

Both fish exhibit a shiny, metallic-colored back, though this feature is often more pronounced and colorful in the Atlantic mackerel. Mackerel and herring both have forked tails, but the tail on the mackerel is generally larger and more defined, providing a powerful propulsion mechanism in the water.

Habitat and Distribution

You’ll find that mackerel and herring are widespread, with each species favoring different habitats and oceanic regions for optimal survival.

Regional Habitats

Mackerel, specifically the Northeast Atlantic mackerel (Scomber scombrus), is commonly found in both the North Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. They thrive in temperate and tropical waters and are typically seen near the coast, occupying both the pelagic and neritic zones.

In contrast, herring species, like the Atlantic herring (Clupea harengus), prefer the chilly waters of the North Atlantic Ocean. They have a propensity for cooler temperate and sub-arctic waters, and their habitats include the Baltic Sea and the North Sea.

Population Distribution

Mackerel and herring’s population distribution varies.

Mackerel populations are widespread across the oceans, with dense schools traveling great distances for feeding and spawning. The presence of mackerel is notable not just in the North Atlantic but also along the coasts of Europe and North America, extending to the Gulf of Mexico.

Herring, on the other hand, is known for forming immense schools in the North Atlantic, from Greenland and the Gulf of Maine to as far as the northern shores of Norway. You may also encounter them along the west coast of North America, especially in places like Alaska, where they are significant both ecologically and commercially.

Note: Population numbers for both species can be influenced by various factors, including fishing practices and environmental changes, which may affect their distribution over time.

Diet and Prey

Mackerel hunts herring in a swirling ocean chase

In understanding the dietary habits and predatory roles of mackerel and herring, you’ll find that both fish species play unique roles in the marine ecosystem, each having distinct food sources and positions within the food chain.

Food Sources

Mackerel typically have a varied diet that includes smaller fish and invertebrates.

Your Atlantic mackerel, for instance, is known to feed on plankton, particularly during its early life stages. As it grows, its diet diversifies to include larger organisms.

  • Plankton
  • Smaller fish
  • Invertebrates

In contrast, herring, which are usually smaller in size, feed predominantly on plankton throughout their lives. This includes both phytoplankton and zooplankton, which they filter from the water using their specialized gill rakers.

  • Phytoplankton
  • Zooplankton

Role in the Food Chain

Both mackerel and herring are essential to the marine food chain.

Your mackerel often act as both predator and prey. When small, they are vulnerable to predators, but as they grow larger, they become formidable predators themselves.

Herring, on the other hand, play more of a prey role. They are a crucial food source for a variety of predators including larger fish, seabirds, and marine mammals. Their schooling behavior is a defensive mechanism against these predators which includes:

  • Larger fish species
  • Seabirds
  • Marine mammals

Both species contribute significantly to the balance of the ocean’s ecosystems, supporting a diverse range of marine life by their presence and feeding habits.

Nutritional Profile

Mackerel and herring are both nutrient-dense fish that provide a rich source of protein and omega-3 fatty acids. They are important components of a healthy diet and offer a variety of vitamins and minerals essential for your body.



  • Protein: A high-quality protein source, with an average of 24 grams per 100 grams.
  • Fats: Rich in heart-healthy polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, including omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA).
  • Calories: Approximately 262 calories per 100 grams.


  • Protein: Provides about 18 grams of protein per 100 grams.
  • Fats: Contains polyunsaturated fats, prominently featuring omega-3s.
  • Calories: Around 203 calories per 100 grams.

Vitamins and Minerals


  • Vitamin D: Essential for bone health and immune function.
  • Vitamin B12: Critical for maintaining healthy nerve and blood cells.
  • Selenium: A mineral important for cognitive function and immune system health.
  • Iron: Necessary for the transportation of oxygen in the blood.


  • Vitamin B12: Considerably high content, imperative for neurological function.
  • Calcium: Contributes to the maintenance of strong bones.
  • Phosphorus: Works with calcium to build bones and teeth.
  • Vitamin B3 (Niacin): Aids in converting food into energy.

Both mackerel and herring are low in saturated fat and cholesterol compared to red meats, making them healthier options for your heart. They are also lower in mercury content than many larger predatory fish, making them safer choices for regular consumption.

Health and Consumption

Oily fish like mackerel and herring offer valuable nutrients that impact your heart health and overall well-being. These fish are loaded with omega-3 fatty acids, important for cardiovascular and brain function, though you should consider factors like mercury content and sodium levels, especially if you are pregnant.

Cardiovascular Benefits

Mackerel and herring are heart-healthy options rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which are known for their cardioprotective properties.

Regular consumption of these fish can contribute to lower cholesterol levels, potentially reducing the risk of sudden cardiac death and overall mortality. The presence of these fatty acids also supports brain function and may assist in managing blood pressure.

Risks and Considerations

While the benefits of consuming mackerel and herring are substantial, there are considerations to keep in mind.

These fish can contain contaminants, like mercury, that might pose health risks if consumed in high quantities. Pregnant individuals should be cautious as high mercury levels can affect fetal development.

Herring, when preserved, can have high sodium content, which should be moderated to maintain healthy blood pressure.

Recommendations for Consumption

For a balanced diet, you should incorporate mackerel and herring while being mindful of their contaminant levels.

Check for mercury and sodium content on packaged fish, and consume these in moderation.

It’s generally recommended to include a variety of fish in your diet to minimize the risks associated with contaminants and to maximize the array of nutrients you ingest.

Here’s a simple guideline for including mackerel and herring in your diet:

  • Mackerel: Aim for 1-2 servings per week.
  • Herring: Suitable for regular consumption; opt for fresh or frozen to avoid added sodium.

Culinary Uses

When choosing between mackerel and herring for your meals, it’s essential to understand how their distinct flavors and textures lend themselves to various culinary preparations.

Each fish shines in different cooking methods and has a unique place in traditional dishes.

Preparation Methods

Mackerel, due to its firm and meaty texture, holds up well to a variety of cooking methods.

You can enjoy mackerel in several ways:

  • Raw: As sushi or sashimi, where its rich, bold flavor can be appreciated.
  • Grilled: The skin becomes crisp, complementing its rich, oily flesh.
  • Smoked: Adds a deep, smoky flavor that works great in salads and as an appetizer.

Herring, on the other hand, is recognized for its delicate, tender texture, making it well-suited for:

  • Cured: Often found in Scandinavian cuisine, cured herring is a staple, typically served with fresh, tangy accents like onions.
  • Pickled: A classic approach that pairs the mild fish with sour pickles or onions for a balanced snack or appetizer.
  • Smoked: When smoked, herring becomes slightly firmer and gains an earthy flavor profile.

Cultural Dishes

You’ll find mackerel featured in various cultural recipes that highlight its versatility:

  • Japanese Cuisine: Grilled mackerel (saba) with a simple soy glaze can be an exquisite main dish.
  • Mediterranean Cuisine: Mackerel pairs well with bold seasonings and can be a standout ingredient in a hearty salad.

Herring stands out in dishes where its subtle flavor can be enjoyed:

  • Dutch Cuisine: Raw herring topped with onions is a traditional Dutch snack.
  • Swedish Cuisine: Pickled herring is a key ingredient in Swedish midsummer and Christmas celebrations.
  • Gear Type: Often caught using purse seines or trawls.
  • Bycatch: Low to moderate, depending on the fishery.
  • Sustainability: Varies by region; some stocks are overfished while others are fished sustainably.
  • Gear Type: Primarily caught with purse seines and gillnets.
  • Bycatch: Can be higher in gillnet fisheries, with concerns over incidental catch of non-target species.
  • Sustainability: Managed with quotas and seasonal closures to prevent overfishing. Some stocks are healthy, whereas others require careful management.
  • Habitat: Predominantly found in temperate and tropical seas.
  • Overfishing: Certain populations, especially the Atlantic mackerel, have experienced overfishing.
  • Management Measures: Includes catch limits and international agreements for stock recovery.
  • Habitat: Common in the shallow, temperate waters of the North Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
  • Overfishing: Some herring populations have been overfished in the past, but many are now subject to strict management practices.
  • Management Measures: Involves monitoring and adjusting quotas to meet sustainable levels and protect the ecosystem.
  • Supply and Demand: The availability of mackerel can impact market prices and is subject to changes due to fishing quotas and seasonal fluctuations.
  • International Trade: Export and import dynamics, notably with countries that have a high intake of seafood, can affect mackerel market stability.
  • Population Shifts: Historical declines in certain herring populations, such as those off the West of Scotland, may have economic repercussions on local fishing industries.
  • Catch Limits: Regulations to protect other species caught during herring fisheries, like the cap on river herring and shad bycatch in mackerel fisheries, can influence herring market supply and price.
  • Texture: Mackerel has a firm, meaty texture that holds up well to different cooking methods. Its flesh is often described as steak-like, making it suitable for grilling, pan-searing, or broiling.
  • Versatility: You’ll find that mackerel’s robust flavor pairs well with strong seasonings and marinades. It’s versatile enough to stand out in stews, salads, and can be served as succulent fillets or in flavor-packed pâtés.
  • Texture: Herring, by comparison, tends to be softer and is commonly enjoyed pickled, which gives it a delicate, smooth texture. It’s commonly found in tender fillets or smaller pieces.
  • Versatility: Due to its milder flavor, herring is excellent for cold preparations like salads or as part of a seafood platter. It’s also a traditional component in dishes such as pickled herring or rolled herring in cream sauce.
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Cassie brings decades of experience to the Kitchen Community. She is a noted chef and avid gardener. Her new book "Healthy Eating Through the Garden" will be released shortly. When not writing or speaking about food and gardens Cassie can be found puttering around farmer's markets and greenhouses looking for the next great idea.
Cassie Marshall
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