The alewife (Alosa pseudoharengus) is an anadromous species of herring found in North America. It is one of the "typical" North American shads, attributed to the subgenus Pomolobus of the genus Alosa. As an adult it is a marine species found in the northern West Atlantic Ocean, moving into estuaries before swimming upstream to breed in freshwater habitats, but some populations live entirely in fresh water. It is best known for its invasion of the Great Lakes by using the Welland Canal to bypass Niagara Falls. Here, its population surged, peaking between the 1950s and 1980s to the detriment of many native species of fish. In an effort to control them biologically, Pacific salmon were introduced, only partially successfully. As a marine fish, the alewife is a US National Marine Fisheries Service "Species of Concern".
Alewives reach a maximum length of about 40 cm (16 in), but have an average length of about 25 cm (10 in). The front of the body is deep and larger than other fish found in the same waters, and its common name is said to come from comparison with a corpulent female tavernkeeper ("ale-wife").
In southwestern Nova Scotia, it is called a kiack (or kyack). In Atlantic Canada it is known as the gaspereau, from the Acadian French word gasparot, first mentioned by Nicolas Denys. William Francis Ganong, New Brunswick biologist and historian, wrote:
Gaspereau, or Gasparot. Name of a common salt-water fish of Acadia (also called alewife), first used, so far as I can find, by Denys in 1672. Nowhere can I find any clue to its origin. It seems not to be Indian.
In eastern Massachusetts, Alewife Brook flows through Arlington, Cambridge, and Somerville to the Mystic River. The brook gives its name to the Alewife Brook Parkway and the Alewife Brook Reservation. The Red Line (MBTA) of Boston's T ends at the Alewife station, so the name of this fish adorns the front of every northbound Red Line train.
In the Southeast US, when sold and used as bait, the fish is often referred to as "LY". Both anadromous and landlocked forms occur. The landlocked form is also called a sawbelly or mooneye (although this latter name is more commonly applied to Hiodon spp.).
Adult alewives are caught during their spring spawning migration upstream by being scooped out of shallow, constricted areas using large dip nets. They are the preferred bait for the spring lobster fishery in Maine, and are eaten by humans, usually smoked.
In the North American Great Lakes
Alewives are perhaps best known for their invasion of the Great Lakes by using the Welland Canal to bypass Niagara Falls. Alewives colonized the Great Lakes and became abundant mostly in Lake Huron and Lake Michigan. They reached their peak abundance by the 1950s and 1980s. Alewives grew in number unchecked because of the lack of a top predator in the lakes (lake trout were essentially wiped out around the same time by overfishing and the invasion of the sea lamprey). For a time, alewives, which often exhibit seasonal die-offs, washed up in windrows on the shorelines of the Great Lakes. Various species of Pacific salmon (first coho, and later the Chinook salmon) were introduced as predators. Though marginally successful, this led to the development of a salmon/alewife fishery popular with many sport anglers
In spite of such biological control methods, alewives remain implicated in the decline of many native Great Lakes species. It is also a common predator of numerous native and non-native zooplankton taxa (Bythotrephes longimanus, Leptodiaptomus ashlandi, Leptodiaptomus minutus, Leptodiaptomus sicilis, and Leptodora kindtii).
Alewife populations have seen big declines throughout much of their range. Several threats have most likely contributed to their decline, including loss of habitat due to decreased access to spawning areas from the construction of dams and other impediments to migration, habitat degradation, fishing, and increased predation due to recovering striped bass populations.
In response to the declining population trend for alewives, the states of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Virginia, and North Carolina have instituted moratoria on taking and possession.
The alewife is a US National Marine Fisheries Service Species of Concern, about which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Marine Fisheries Service, has some concerns regarding status and threats, but for which insufficient information is available to indicate a need to list the species under the US Endangered Species Act.
- Froese, Rainer and Pauly, Daniel, eds. (2006). "Alosa pseudoharengus" in FishBase. April 2006 version.
- Faria, R.; Weiss, S. & Alexandrino, P. (2006): A molecular phylogenetic perspective on the evolutionary history of Alosa spp. (Clupeidae). Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 40(1): 298–304. doi:10.1016/j.ympev.2006.02.008 (HTML abstract)
- Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition
- Nova Scotia Fisheries: Alewife Archived 2007-08-24 at the Wayback Machine.
- Ganong, W. F. (1910). "The Identity of the Animals and Plants Mentioned by the Early Voyagers to Eastern Canada and Newfoundland". Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada. Royal Society of Canada. III: 218. OL 7061668M. Retrieved June 27, 2013.
- Maine Dept of Marine Resources. "Maine River Herring Fact Sheet". Archived from the original on 2011-09-07.
- Species Profile- Alewife (Alosa pseudoharengus), National Invasive Species Information Center, United States National Agricultural Library. Lists general information and resources for Alewife.
- Fish Win: Maine About-Face Lets Alewives Return to Canada Border River
- "Alewife". New International Encyclopedia. 1905.
- "Alewife". Collier's New Encyclopedia. 1921.
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