Alosa pseudoharengus (Wilson, 1811)

Common Name: Alewife

Synonyms and Other Names:

U.S. Fish and Wildlife ServiceCopyright Info

U.S. Fish and Wildlife ServiceCopyright Info

Identification: Whitehead (1985); Page and Burr (1991); Etnier and Starnes (1993); Jenkins and Burkhead (1994). The alewife is a small herring with a dark dorsal side, bluish to greenish, and light sides with horizontal darker stripes.

Size: to 38 cm, but inland populations usually less than 25 cm

Native Range: Atlantic Coast from Red Bay, Labrador, to South Carolina; many landlocked populations (Page and Burr 1991).

Great Lakes Nonindigenous Occurrences: Alewife were introduced into Colorado (Minckley 1973); Georgia (Dahlberg and Scott 1971); Lake Michigan, Illinois (Miller 1957; Smith 1979; Phillips et al. 1982; Emery 1985); Lake Michigan (Miller 1957; Phillips et al. 1982; Emery 1985), Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore (Tilmant 1999), Bass Lake (INDNR) Indiana; Kentucky (Burr and Page 1986; Burr and Warren 1986); Maine (Smith 1985); Massachusetts (Hartel 1992); the Great Lakes (Miller 1957; Eddy and Underhill 1974; Phillips et al. 1982; Emery 1985; Smith 1985), Isle Royale National Park, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore (Tilmant 1999) and Lake St. Clair (Cudmore-Vokey and Crossman 2000) Michigan ; Lake Superior, Minnesota (Miller 1957; Eddy and Underhill 1974; Phillips et al. 1982; Emery 1985); Nebraska (Morris et al. 1974; Bouc 1987); New Hampshire (Smith 1985); Adirondack lakes (Smith 1985), Otsego Lake in 1988 (T. Sinnott, personal communication), Lake Erie (Miller 1957; Eddy and Underhill 1974; Emery 1985; Smith 1985), lakes in the headwaters of Black River, the St. Lawrence Seaway, and Saratoga Lake (Smith 1970), Otisco Lake (Kelly 2001), and possibly Lake Ontario (Smith 1970; Smith 1985), New York; Lake Erie and Conneaut, Ohio (Miller 1957; Emery 1985); Lake Erie (Miller 1957; Eddy and Underhill 1974; Emery 1985), Youghiogheny River (Hendricks et al. 1979), and Colyer Lake in Centre County (Denoncourt et al. 1975), Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area (Tilmant 1999), Pennsylvania; Lake Moultrie, Lake Marion, Congaree River, and Wateree River, South Carolina (Rohde et al. 2009); Dale Hollow and Watauga Reservoirs, Tennessee (Etnier and Starnes 1993; W. Pollock, personal communication); Lake St. Catherine and Lake Champlain, Vermont (Hauser 1998; Marsden and Hauser 2009); several reservoirs in Virginia (Hocutt et al. 1986; Jenkins and Burkhead 1994); Bluestone Reservoir, New drainage, West Virginia (Hocutt et al. 1986; Stauffer et al. 1995; Jenkins and Burkhead 1994); and lakes Michigan and Superior, Kangaroo Lake, Pigeon River, Pigeon Lake, East Twin River, Sheboygan River, Green Bay, St. Louis River estuary, Sauk Creek, and Milwaukee River, Wisconsin (Miller 1957; Phillips et al. 1982; Becker 1983; Emery 1985; Czypinski et al. 2002).

Collected from Lake Superior at Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada (USGS Lake Superior Biological Station).

Table 1. Great Lakes region nonindigenous occurrences, the earliest and latest observations in each state/province, and the tally and names of HUCs with observations†. Names and dates are hyperlinked to their relevant specimen records. The list of references for all nonindigenous occurrences of Alosa pseudoharengus are found here.

Full list of USGS occurrences

State/ProvinceFirst ObservedLast ObservedTotal HUCs with observations†HUCs with observations†
IL194920183Lake Michigan; Little Calumet-Galien; Pike-Root
IN195620142Lake Michigan; Little Calumet-Galien
MI1933201418Betsie-Platte; Betsy-Chocolay; Carp-Pine; Detroit; Fishdam-Sturgeon; Keweenaw Peninsula; Lake Erie; Lake Huron; Lake Michigan; Lake St. Clair; Lake Superior; Ontonagon; Pere Marquette-White; Raisin; St. Clair; St. Marys; Sturgeon; Waiska
MN195620124Baptism-Brule; Beaver-Lester; Lake Superior; St. Louis
NY1868201512Black; Chaumont-Perch; Irondequoit-Ninemile; Lake Champlain; Lake Erie; Lake Ontario; Oak Orchard-Twelvemile; Raisin River-St. Lawrence River; Salmon-Sandy; Saranac River; Seneca; St. Regis
OH193120157Ashtabula-Chagrin; Black-Rocky; Cedar-Portage; Chautauqua-Conneaut; Huron-Vermilion; Lake Erie; Sandusky
PA193120061Lake Erie
VT199720182Lake Champlain; Mettawee River
WI1952201710Beartrap-Nemadji; Door-Kewaunee; Lake Michigan; Lake Superior; Lower Fox; Manitowoc-Sheboygan; Milwaukee; Peshtigo; Pike-Root; St. Louis

Table last updated 2/25/2021

† Populations may not be currently present.

* HUCs are not listed for areas where the observation(s) cannot be approximated to a HUC (e.g. state centroids or Canadian provinces).

Means of Introduction: There is apparently disagreement concerning the native status of alewife in Lake Ontario. Miller (1957) and Smith (1970) point out the first record from Lake Ontario was in 1873. Smith (1970) is of the opinion that it was introduced into the lake. Although Smith (1970) brings up the possibility that alewife were introduced into Lake Ontario with American shad stockings in the 1880s, he discounts this possibility in favor of the hypothesis that they reached the lake via the Erie Canal from the Hudson River. He contends that alewife were only able to invade the lake after the decline of predators such as lake trout and Atlantic salmon in the 1860s. Other authors believe, this species was probably native to Lake Ontario (Lee et al. 1980 et seq.) and spread through the Great Lakes via the Welland Canal (Lee et al. 1980 et seq.). The species was first reported from Lake Erie in 1931, Lake Huron in 1933, Lake Michigan in 1949, and Lake Superior in 1954. The alewife was intentionally stocked in inland waters. The population in the New River, West Virginia, resulted from stockings in Claytor Lake, New River, Virginia (Jenkins and Burkhead 1994). The recently discovered population in Lake St. Catherine, Vermont, is likely a result of an illegal stocking (Good, personal communication). Lakes in the Adirondack Mountains and Otsego Lake, New York were illegally stocked with alewife for forage (Smith 1985; Sinnott, personal communication; D. Warner, personal communication).

Status: Established in many states and throughout the Great Lakes. Introduction to the Youghiogheny River was unsuccessful (Hendricks et al. 1979).

Great Lakes Impacts: Alosa pseudoharengus has a high environmental impact in the Great Lakes.

Alewife populations grew rapidly in the 1950s and 1960s in Lake Huron, Lake Ontario, and Lake Michigan, until they largely dominated fish communities as populations of top predators declined due to sea lamprey (Petromyzon marinus) predation. Bottom trawls of Lake Michigan revealed that alewife abundance increased from <500 lbs/hour of trawling in 1963 to as high as 1500 lbs/hour of trawling in 1966 (Brown 1968). As the abundance of alewife continued to increase in the absence of predators, massive annual die-offs of alewife began in Lake Ontario, Lake Huron, and Lake Michigan. Beaches and nearshore regions were littered with “huge windrows” of fish (Brown 1968), reportedly removed by bulldozer (Alewife explosion 1967). After the introduction of salmonids in the late 1960s to both control alewife abundance and create a sport-fishing industry, alewife populations have decreased steadily over time, with intermittent periods of growth and decline which could have been due to predation pressure, climate, or limited zooplankton availability (Eck and Wells 1987, Madenjian et al. 2008, Mills et al. 2005, Rand et al. 1995).

It was estimated that alewife populations were responsible for 28% of the total consumption (by wet weight) in Lake Michigan in 1987, and 96% of the total predation on invertebrates in Lake Ontario in 1990 (Rand et al. 1995). The abundance of alewife combined with a diet preference of zooplankton and larval fishes has been shown to affect both the zooplankton community and certain native fish populations over time. Preference for macrozooplankton and microcrustaceans has shifted the zooplankton community structure towards a prevalence of small species. Following an alewife decline in Lake Michigan in the mid 1970s, Evans (1990) noted a significant increase in abundance of Limnocalanus macrurus and Diaptomus sicilis, two of the largest copepods. Similarly, a 1987-1995 study of Lake Ontario found that abundances of cyclopoids and other larger species of zooplankton increased during this period of alewife decline (Johannsson et al. 1998). Changes in zooplankton abundance and structure caused by alewife can lead to changes in the phytoplankton community (Shapiro et al. 1975).

Disappearance of native planktivorous salmonids, such as lake whitefish (Coregonus clupeaformis), in the Great Lakes has been attributed in part to the introduction of alewife because of reduced zooplankton populations (Crowder and Binkowski 1983, Page and Laird 1993, Todd 1986). Crowder (1984) speculated that a cisco native to Lake Michigan, the bloater (C. hoyi) evolved fewer and shorter gill rakers, and shifted to benthic habitat and diet as a result of competition with alewife. Smith (1970) attributed the extermination of the cisco and decline of chub species in the Great Lakes to the alewife. Smith (1970) also discussed the various interrelated changes that took place in each of the Great Lakes as alewife abundance increased. Christie (1972), on the other hand, argued that the alewife was not responsible for these changes.

In a review of the adverse effects of alewife on Great Lake fish communities, Madenjian et al. (2008) presented evidence that agreed with Eck and Wells (1987), who stated that alewife likely has a larger effect on native fish populations through predation of larvae than competition for food resources. Using time-series data for various fish populations along with change point regression analysis, they concluded that predation of larvae by alewife likely contributed to the decline of yellow perch (Perca flavescens), deepwater sculpin (Myoxocephalus thompsonii), burbot (Lota lota), Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar), lake trout (Salvelinus namaycush), and emerald shiner (Notropis atherinoides) (Madenjian et al. 2008).

Furthermore, alewife has an elevated level of thiaminase, an enzyme that can degrade thiamine in those species that prey on alewife (Tillitt et al. 2005). Alewife has thus been shown to cause thiamine deficiency and, consequently, early mortality syndrome (EMS) in populations of alewife predators. EMS and its adverse effects on recruitment and fish populations is well-documented for coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch), lake trout, and Atlantic salmon (in which it is also referred to as Cayuga syndrome), among other fishes (Fitzsimons et al. 1999, Ketola et al. 2000, Madenjian et al. 2008). In a spawning reef in Lake Ontario, 50–75% of newly hatched lake trout fry were estimated to suffer from EMS from 1992-1999 (Mills et al. 2005).

In high abundances, alewife could restructure a lake's food web, leaving less food for native species (USEPA 2008). EMS also has the potential to cause a genetic bottleneck in populations of heavy alewife predators by increasing fry mortality and inhibiting recruitment (Mills et al. 2005).

Alosa pseudoharengus has a high socio-economic impact in the Great Lakes.

Alewife is a very important species in the history of biological invasions in the Great Lakes. Periodic large-scale die-offs littered the beaches of the Great Lakes with rotting fish in the 1960s. These mortality events happened with such frequency that they became known as “the annual spring and summer die-off” (Brown 1968). Such die-offs cause widespread beach closures and can pose both a nuisance and a health hazard (Becker 1983).

Alosa pseudoharengus has a high beneficial effect in the Great Lakes.

Prompted by calls for alewife management, Pacific salmonids were introduced to both control alewife populations and utilize alewife as a food source for sport fisheries. Non-native salmonids in the Great Lakes now support a multimillion dollar sport fishing economy and have caused alewife populations to decline to the extent that salmonid stocking has been reduced to bolster alewife abundance and sustain the sport fisheries.

Management: Regulations (pertaining to the Great Lakes region)
Alosa pseudoharengus is a regulated invasive species in Minnesota (MN Administrative Rules, 6216.0260 Regulated).  New York restricts the use of alewife as bait in most waters (6 NYCRR Part 19).   While not listed by name, in Ohio it is illegal for any person to possess, import or sell exotic species of fish (including Alosa pseudoharengus) or hybrids thereof for introduction or to release into any body of water that is connected to or otherwise drains into a flowing stream or other body of water that would allow egress of the fish into public waters, or waters of the state, without first having obtained permission (OAC Chapter 1501:31-19).

Note: Check federal, state/provincial, and local regulations for the most up-to-date information.

The management response to Great Lakes alewife overabundance and recurring die-offs was to invest in sea lamprey (Petromyzon marinus) control and planting of hatchery-reared Pacific salmonids (Oncorhynchus spp.) to re-establish top open-water predators (Kocik and Jones 1999; Hansen and Holey 2002).  Older and larger fish tend to be most heavily affected by piscivores, while smaller and younger fish remain abundant (Hewett and Stewart 1989).  Alewives are now managed in part to support the valuable salmonid fishery.

There are no known physical control methods for this species.

Of the four chemical piscicides registered for use in the United States, antimycin A and rotenone are considered “general” piscicides (GLMRIS 2012).

Increasing CO2 concentrations, either by bubbling pressurized gas directly into water or by the addition of sodium bicarbonate (NaHCO3) has been used to sedate fish with minimal residual toxicity, and is a potential method of harvesting fish for removal, though maintaining adequate CO2 concentrations may be difficult in large/natural water bodies (Clearwater et al. 2008). CO2 is approved only for use as an anesthetic for cold, cool, and warm water fishes the US, not for use as euthanasia, and exposure to NaHCO3 concentration of 142-642 mg/L for 5 min. is sufficient to anaesthetize most fish (Clearwater et al. 2008).

It should be noted that chemical treatment will often lead to non-target kills, and so all options for management of a species should be adequately studied before a decision is made to use piscicides or other chemicals. Potential effects on non-target plants and organisms, including macroinvertebrates and other fishes, should always be deliberately evaluated and analyzed. The effects of combinations of management chemicals and other toxicants, whether intentional or unintentional, should be understood prior to chemical treatment.  Other non-selective alterations of water quality, such as reducing dissolved oxygen levels or altering pH, could also have a deleterious impact on native fish, invertebrates, and other fauna or flora, and their potential harmful effects should therefore be evaluated thoroughly.

Note: Check state/provincial and local regulations for the most up-to-date information regarding permits for control methods. Follow all label instructions.

Remarks: Although there is a report of two small alewives taken from the Colorado River, Texas (Bean 1882), we believe this record is in error. Bean (1882) reported that the specimens were sent to Professor Baird at the National Museum. However, a query of the museum's holdings did not return these specimens. We believe the fish are more likely either misidentified A. chrysochloris or A. sapidissima. Alosa sapidissima were stocked in the Colorado River in 1874 (Bean 1882).

Alewife is one of the most frequently found prey items in the diet of the Double-Crested Cormorant in the southern basin of Lake Michigan (Madura and Jones 2016).

Voucher specimens: Michigan (UMMZ 157215, 160969, 167872, 171308, 170945), Wisconsin (UMMZ 162861, 167945). 

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Author: Fuller, P., E. Maynard, D. Raikow, J. Larson, A. Fusaro, and M. Neilson

Contributing Agencies:

Revision Date: 9/12/2019

Peer Review Date: 9/25/2015

Citation for this information:
Fuller, P., E. Maynard, D. Raikow, J. Larson, A. Fusaro, and M. Neilson, 2021, Alosa pseudoharengus (Wilson, 1811): U.S. Geological Survey, Nonindigenous Aquatic Species Database, Gainesville, FL, and NOAA Great Lakes Aquatic Nonindigenous Species Information System, Ann Arbor, MI,, Revision Date: 9/12/2019, Peer Review Date: 9/25/2015, Access Date: 2/25/2021

This information is preliminary or provisional and is subject to revision. It is being provided to meet the need for timely best science. The information has not received final approval by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and is provided on the condition that neither the USGS nor the U.S. Government shall be held liable for any damages resulting from the authorized or unauthorized use of the information.