Alewife and Blueback Herring
Alosa pseudoharengus and Alosa aestivalis
(A.K.A. - River Herring, Alewives)
Key Distinguishing Markings:
- Alewife and blueback herring are collectively termed "river herring" and can be difficult to distinguish from one another.
- Both alewife and blueback herring are silvery in color and have a series of scutes (modified scales that are spiny and keeled) along their belly.
- The dorsal surface is bronze in color for alewife herring and deep bluish green for blueback herring.
- Alewife herring are more strongly compressed, and their bodies are less elongated.
- Alewife herring have larger eyes than blueback herring.
- The most distinguishing characteristic of these species is the color of their peritoneum or the lining of the abdominal cavity.
- An alewife herring's peritoneum is pale with dusky spots.
- A blueback herring's peritoneum is black to dusky in color.
- Maximum length of a river herring is approximately 15 inches.
- Alewife and blueback herring are relatively small anadromous fishes of the family, Clupeidae. They spend their adult lives at sea and return only to freshwater areas to spawn in the spring.
- Alewife herring spawn in a diversity of habitats including large rivers, small streams, ponds, and large lakes over a wide range of substrates such as gravel, sand, detritus, and submerged vegetation. In areas where alewife and blueback herring co-exist, blueback herring will exhibit more variety in spawning site selection including shallow areas covered with vegetation, ricefields, swampy areas, and small tributaries upstream from the tidal zone.
- Various studies have determined that river herring are capable of migrating long distances (over 1200 miles) in ocean waters of the Atlantic seaboard. Patterns of river herring migration may be similar to those of American shad.
- Alewife herring spawn in rivers and tributaries from northeastern Newfoundland to South Carolina, but are most abundant in the mid-Atlantic and northeastern states.
- Blueback herring spawn from Nova Scotia to northern Florida, but are most numerous in warmer waters from Chesapeake Bay south.
- In the mid-Atlantic region, both alewife and blueback herring are found in the Chesapeake Bay and its' tributaries.
- Alewife herring spawn from late February through April, whereas blueback herring spawn from late March through mid-May.
- Females from both species usually reach 100% maturity by age 5 and produce from 60,000 - 103,000 eggs
- Males of both species generally mature at an earlier age (ages 3-4) and smaller size than females.
- Mature river herring broadcast their eggs and sperm simultaneously into the water over the substrate.
- Immediately after spawning, adults migrate rapidly downstream.
- Juveniles will remain in freshwater nursery areas in spring and summer, feeding mainly on zooplankton. As water temperatures decline in the fall, most juveniles move downstream to more saline waters, eventually to the sea; however, some will remain in deeper waters of the Bay and its tributaries for their first winter.
- Little information is available on the life history of subadult and adult river herring after they emigrate to the sea as juveniles, and before they mature and return to freshwater to spawn.
- A statewide moratorium on the harvest of river herring in Maryland waters was implemented on December 26, 2011 to prevent extinction.
- A catch and release recreational fishery is permitted in Maryland.
- Many states along the US east coast closed their river herring fisheries in 2012; only selected sustainable river herring fisheries in Maine, New York, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, North Carolina and South Carolina remain open.
- The commercial and recreational fisheries for both these species have declined dramatically from historic highs.
- Degradation and destruction of spawning habitat, construction of dams restricting their spawning migrations, increased fishing pressure and bycatch mortality in ocean fisheries have all been major contributors to the decline of these stocks.
- The principal gear used in the Chesapeake Bay river herring fishery is pound nets, although gill nets, haul seines, and fyke nets have also been employed.
- In the past, an extensive recreational fishery for river herring existed in the tributaries of Chesapeake Bay during the early spring months.
- Although some fish were captured using hook and line, most were harvested using dip nets.
- Current management restrictions on river herring, see Maryland's updated regulation page.
- In 1931, over 25 million pounds of river herring were harvested, ranking them 2nd in quantity and 5th in value of all Chesapeake finfish, and 1st in quantity and 4th in value of all finfish landed in Maryland.
- Alewife and blueback herring, like other alosine species (American shad and hickory shad) lay down spawning marks on their scales so that the number of times an individual fish has spawned in its lifetime is recorded on its scale. Blueback herring (age 10) have been seen with as many as 5 and 6 spawning marks!
- River herring are considered to be an important forage base for large predators, such as striped bass and bluefish.
Alewife and Blueback Herring
Family: Clupeidae (Herrings, shads, sardines, menhadens)
Order: Clupeiformes (herrings)
Class: Actinopterygii (ray-finned fishes)
For more information on alewife and blueback herring and their management, please contact Harry Rickabaugh.
Illustrations by Diane Rome Peebles
Provided by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission,
Division of Marine Fisheries Management