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Fact File

Scientific Name: Alosa pseudoharengus

Classification: Fish, Order Clupeiformes, Family Clupeidae

Conservation Status:

Size: Mature Alewife average about 10 inches in Virginia, but can surpass 16 inches in length

Life Span: About 10 years

Identifying Characteristics

  • Elongated body, tapering quickly near the caudal fin (tail)
  • Deeply forked caudal fin
  • Silver in color along the sides, with hues of purple and blue in certain lighting
  • An elongated anal fin in the shape of a sickle
  • A sharp keel along the underside

How to Discern from Similar Looking Species

The alewife looks similar to several other native fish species in this image it is the fish on the bottom left

Four anadromous clupeids captured during a Virginia DWR Fish Passage efficacy survey. Moving clockwise across the specimens are an American Shad (top left), Blueback Herring (top right), Hickory Shad (bottom right), and an Alewife (bottom left). ©Photo by Alan Weaver – State Fish Passage Coordinator DWR


Alewife are a pelagic species, schooling and feeding in open water near the surface. Alewife feed heavily on zooplankton, as well as shrimp, other small crustaceans and small fish.


In Virginia, Alewife are native to tributaries of the Albemarle Sound, Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. They have been introduced into several waters throughout the state as a forage species.


The Alewife is an anadromous species of fish, which means it spends most of its adult life in saltwater environments, but returns to Virginia’s freshwater tributaries in order to fulfill its reproductive cycle. Alewife are pelagic while in marine environments. Upon entering freshwater tributaries, Alewife migrate upstream in search of areas with clean flowing water, where they can spawn in riffles comprised of clean gravelly substrates.


Alewife spawn between February and May in Virginia. While there is some overlap with the timing Blueback Herring, they typically spawn earlier. Alewife often spawn in the upper reaches of tidal systems on gravel substrates, but will also spawn in quieter backwaters of larger rivers.

Alewife are broadcast spawners, where females release eggs into the water column while males simultaneously release their milt. Alewife eggs hatch about one week after fertilization. Juvenile Alewife use Virginia’s tidal rivers and estuaries as a nursery before emigrating to the Atlantic Ocean.


Virginia Marine Resources Commission

Alewife within Virginia’s tidal tributaries, the Chesapeake Bay, and along the Atlantic Coast are managed by the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC). The Department of Wildlife Resources would like to remind anglers to familiarize themselves with VMRC regulations prior to recreating in these areas.

Last updated: May 6, 2024

The Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources Species Profile Database serves as a repository of information for Virginia’s fish and wildlife species. The database is managed and curated by the Wildlife Information and Environmental Services (WIES) program. Species profile data, distribution information, and photography is generated by the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, State and Federal agencies, Collection Permittees, and other trusted partners. This product is not suitable for legal, engineering, or surveying use. The Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources does not accept responsibility for any missing data, inaccuracies, or other errors which may exist. In accordance with the terms of service for this product, you agree to this disclaimer.