New Hampshire: Everything You Didn’t Want to Know About Alewives

Alewives… in reality they are not barmaids, nor spouses of beer drinkers

So what are they, and how did they get their name?

ale-wife (ayl wife), Pomolobus pseudoharengus, a small river herring found along the Atlantic coast and in certain landlocked lakes of North America, especially in New England.  The fish has a deep body and is heavily build forward, reportedly many years ago there was a comparison with an “alewife” the name given to a hearty seventeenth-century English alehouse keeper. “The alewife is like a herrin’, but it has a bigger bellie, therefore called an alewife, ‘A Dictionary of Americanisms, 1675’.”  The Old English, “Ale-wife,  “Alewife” was a landlady of an ale house, or ale stand.

Sketch of an alewife from book: Alewife and Blueback Herring, by by Earl L. Bozeman, Jr. and Michael Bozeman, Earl L.; Georgia Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Unit

Sketch of an alewife from book: Alewife and Blueback Herring, by by Earl L. Bozeman, Jr. and Michael Bozeman, Earl L.; Georgia Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Unit

Common names (of the fish): Alewife, mulhaden, grey herring, golden shad. They are found from Newfoundland to northern South Carolina.  They feed on diatoms, copepods, shrimps, insects, small fishes, squids and fish eggs.

In New Hampshire, Alewives even (used) to have a Festival, when the alewife was celebrated.  The Annual River Alewife Festival was held on the Swasey Parkway in Exeter, New Hampshire each year, to celebrate the migration of the alewife from the Atlantic Ocean to the Exeter River.  That  annual celebration’s record attendance was 750 people, and included educational demonstrations, games, kayak races, activities, tours, and vendors. [EDITOR’S NOTE: The last of these events was held in 2008. I contacted the Exeter River Advisory Committee, who arranged these events. They state there will NOT be a 2016 event, despite promotion of it on another web site.  There simply are not funds allocated for this type of educational event].

The 2003 State of the Estuaries report produced by the New Hampshire Estuaries Project offers data that suggest New Hampshire’s estuaries are in generally good condition, but are under threat. The 32-page report examines 12 environmental indicators of estuarine health, such as bacteria levels, nitrogen concentrations, toxic contaminant levels, abundance of shellfish and land use in the coastal watershed. The report describes the current status of New Hampshire’s estuaries and suggests trends for the future. It is designed to provide readers an accurate understanding of environmental trends for New Hampshire’s estuarine resources so that they in pdf at

MIT has an “Alewife Project” which has nothing to do with the fish variety, and more to do with “Multiprocessors that integrate both cache-coherent, distributed shared memory and user-level message-passing in a single integrated hardware unit.. ugh! I’ll give a ‘virtual penny’ to the first person who can translate that into something I can understand. 😀


Also see
Great Bay Estuary, New Hampshire

Gulf of Maine Research Institute: Alewife

Alewife Fact Sheet

All About Alewives

Book: The Run, by John Hay, 1959 [Hathi Trust]

(updated 27 May 2016)

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