Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries

, Volume 11, Issue 4, pp 339–361 | Cite as

The role of ``conservatism'' in herring migrations

  • Ad Corten


Herring (Clupea harengus) migrationstend to remain constant over periods of severalyears or even decades, despite environmentalvariation. When a migration pattern is changed,apparently in response to an environmentalstimulus, the change in migratory behaviorsometimes lasts longer than the environmentalstimulus itself. This paper reviews evidencethat the response of herring to environmentalchange is restrained by conservatism. Herringapparently develop certain migratory habitsduring the early stage of adult life and tendto adhere to these habits for life, even whenthe environment changes. Two elements ofconservatism are distinguished: the formationof habits within one generation, and thetransfer of habits between generations. Anumber of case studies on North Sea herring andNorwegian spring spawning herring are reviewedin order to find evidence for habit formationand tradition in the migrations of thesepopulations. By eliminating the possibilitythat homing to spawning, wintering and feedinggrounds is due to innate behavior orenvironmental constraints, it is shown that thereturn of these fish to the same areas eachyear is most likely a form of learned behavior.In many cases, new year-classes adopt the samemigration pattern as their predecessors, whichis explained by the social transfer of habitsfrom old herring to young ones. A change ofmigration pattern is usually initiated by arecruiting year-class that lacks the ``guidance''of older herring at the time it has to startits first migration. This may be the effect ofa special environmental condition that affectsthe distribution of the recruiting age groupmore than that of the adult stock component, andthereby results in a separation of the twostock components. After the recruitingyear-class has adopted the new migration route,it tends to repeat it in subsequent years. Thenew migration thus becomes habitual. Subsequentgenerations may copy the migration and continuethis behavior even after the originalenvironmental cause has disappeared.

herring migrations learning conservatism tradition 


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© Kluwer Academic Publishers 2001

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ad Corten
    • 1
  1. 1.Netherlands Institute for Fisheries Research RIVOIJmuidenThe Netherlands

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