The herring, or nishin in Japanese, is a migrant fish that prefers cold waters. This is why a majority of Japan’s herring is caught in the waters off Hokkaido. Herring can be categorized into many different subgroups that have differing spawning areas, spawning seasons and ranges of migration. In the vicinity of Hokkiado, there are two subgroups: one is the Hokkaido/Sakhalin subgroup and the other is the Ishikari Bay subgroup. To draw distinction between the related species of the Atlantic herring found in Northern Europe, these herring are also called Pacific herring.
Herring tend to easily lose their freshness, so they are generally distributed as processed foods, such as konbu-maki and others. When grilled after seasoned with salt, herring meat becomes airy and delivers a savory punch of flavor despite being a white fish.
■Healthy stocks of herring are still found in the Sea of Japan and mainly Eastern Hokkaido
At 1124 tons and 968 tons respectively, Monbetsu City and Ishikari City account for the largest herring catch of any municipality by far (source: 2012 Fisheries in Hokkaido).
In addition, Yubetsu Town and Bekkai Town also have large catches. Nemuro City in Eastern Hokkaido as well as Otaru City, Furubira Town and Yoichi Town each saw a temporary downturn in herring fishing. In recent years, however, these municipalities have been able to catch between 100 and 250 tons each year.
■Map / Main municipalities with fishing grounds
Monbetsu City, Ishikari City, Yubetsu Town, Bekkai Town, Nemuro City, Otaru City, Furubira Town, Akkeshi Town, Yoichi Town, Kitami City
The area around Esashi Town, where the settlement of Hokkaido began, flourished as a center of the herring trade between Kansai and Shikoku, using Kitamaebune ships since the 18th century. The area around Otaru City also became a major fishing hub from the latter half of the 18th century to the beginning of the 20th century. The Herring Mansion built there by fishing barons of the time still stands preserved today. The major fishing grounds shifted to Eastern Hokkaido, but gradually the herring stock in the Sea of Japan has shown signs of a recovery in recent years.
Freshly caught herring can be enjoyed raw. They are a popular spring flavor served at sushi restaurants and feature a crispy and crunchy texture.
Herring lay their eggs on seaweed near the coast. Mother herring that come close to shore are called spring herring, or haru-nishin. The season differs by region, but mainly runs from the end of January to early May. The season for autumn herring, or aki-nishin, runs from August to December. These fish have a great deal of nutrients stored up prior to spawning season.