If you find yourself in need of a relaxing moment during your visit to the New England Aquarium, head up to our schooling fish exhibit on Level 2. About 1,900 blueback herring,  a local species in Massachusetts, go around and around the tank in a mesmerizing display of shimmering silver.


Herring always seem to know right where to go without bumping into any of their neighbors. Although they can’t technically speak to one another, they have found ways to communicate throughout their school. Like many other fish, herring have a lateral line system, which is made up of organs used to detect motion in the water, along their bodies. This helps them sense the location of one another fish as they swim. 


The most important reason that fish group together when they swim is for protection. While there are no threats in their Aquarium exhibit, the ocean is an entirely different environment. Herring make up an integral part of food webs for many different animals in the wild, including larger fish, marine mammals, and seabirds. Since herring are such a sought-after meal, they stick together in an attempt to create a more intimidating display than they would swimming solo. Traveling in a school is, in theory, beneficial to not being eaten since it can often confuse and distract predators; however, when a predator has an enormous mouth, this method tends to backfire.

Humpback whales feed
Humpback whales bubble-net feed. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Large animals such as whales use the schooling of fish to their benefit, pushing the fish even close together before eating as many as possible. Whales, however, are not the only animal with harvesting capabilities. Fishing gear, such as nets, can scoop up an entire school of fish at once, creating significant impacts to fish populations. When people select seafood for consumption, it is crucial to be conscious  of where and how the fish were caught. Choosing more sustainable options, such as fish caught on a pole and line, can have an enormous positive impact on important species that support the well-being of Earth’s oceans.


Blueback herring are anadromous. This means they spend their adult lives at sea and return to their freshwater spewing grounds to reproduce. Such animals need clear paths to get to spawning sites. This creates many opportunities for people to work within their communities to protect and restore local waterways.

Learn more about schooling animals by visiting our herring exhibit and reading our blog!