The Alewife Herring is found in the Chesapeake Bay and nearly all of its tributaries. It’s a silver fish with big eyes, spiny scales along its belly and a bronze dorsal area. Measuring 12 -15” in length, the fish has large metallic scales that are easily lost, and a body that is less elongated than other river herring.
The Alewife is a strong swimmer and can migrate over 1,200 miles in ocean waters along the Atlantic seaboard. The fish spawn from late February through April in a variety 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.
It takes an egg about three to seven days to hatch and the juvenile remains in freshwater nursery areas in spring and summer, feeding mainly on zooplankton. As water temperatures decline in the fall, it moves downstream to more saline waters, eventually to the sea; however, some remain in deeper waters of the Bay and its tributaries for their first winter. Females reach maturity by the age of five, while the males mature in about three to four years.
The species provides food for land and sea predators, including striped bass and a variety of birds. Early colonists stored salted herring for winter food and used the oily backbones of herring as lamp wicks. Today, the fish is still harvested and can be eaten fresh, pickled or smoked. They are sometimes harvested for their roe, but the majority of commercially harvested herring usually end up as crab and eel bait, fish meal or pet food.
Illustration by Diane Rome
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