Alewife fish in Lake Michigan dying in masses like they used to

History is repeating itself in Lake Michigan: The alewife fish is washing up on the shores in a widespread “die-off” event that used to happen frequently in the past.

The alewife fish, which is not native to the Great Lakes, is dying off in what is known as a “seasonal die-off” event in Lake Michigan, according to the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The event of widespread fish deaths has been “rare in recent times,” but occurred fairly frequently between the 1960s and early 2000s, officials said.

In fact, on this day in 1967, billions of alewives washed up on shores of Lake Michigan between Benton Harbor and Petoskey. According to Michigan Day by Day, a website run by a retired Michigan State University librarian, the event caused “tremendous damage to the tourist industry.” So much so that coho and chinook salmon were reportedly imported into the lake to feed on the alewives.


“The die-off is larger than normal this year and something we have not seen in years,” said Jay Wesley, Lake Michigan basin coordinator for the Michigan DNR, in a press release Wednesday. “We are seeing the die-off extend from Muskegon all the way up to Cross Village and out to the Beaver Island complex.”

Dead alewives wash ashore. Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Sea Grant. (Phil Moy/Wisconsin Sea Grant)

Native to the Atlantic Ocean, the alewife fish reportedly migrated into the Great Lakes in the 1920s using the Welland Canal. The alewife is a type of herring that is considered a small prey fish, as it only grows between 2-9 inches in length.

According to the Michigan DNR, alewives migrate from deep, cold waters to nearshore areas during the spring and summer to look for food. Some of the fish are in a “weakened state” following the winter and struggle to adapt to changing environmental conditions, like large temperature swings, officials said.

“The combination of poor over-winter condition, temperature changes and spawning stress cause the die-off,” the DNR said.


Officials believe this year’s alewife die-off is a “natural event” that is not caused by pollution or disease. The public can report die-offs online with the Michigan DNR right here.

The Michigan department asks the public to report any die-offs that are believed to be caused by unnatural conditions to their nearest DNR office or by calling Michigan’s Pollution Emergency Alert System at 800-292-4706.


Related: Looking for a new place to fish? Check out Michigan’s roadmaps to fishing in the Great Lakes

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