For the past four centuries, people have done their best to prove Capt. John Smith wrong when he reported that the James River had more sturgeon “than could be devoured by dog or man.”
In the following centuries, the giant fish were often pulled from the water and thrown on shore to die. “They were seen as a behemoth that destroyed fishing gear,” said Chris Hager, a fisheries scientist in the Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. “People were just killing them to get them out of the river.”
Then, sturgeon—which are notoriously slow to reproduce—were severely overfished in the late 1800s. In 1890, nearly 7.4 million pounds of Atlantic sturgeon were landed, with about 10 percent coming from the Chesapeake. By 1920, only 22,000 pounds were caught coastwide.
Habitat destruction and pollution during the 1900s further stemmed any hope of recovery. One by one, sturgeon populations disappeared from Bay rivers where they historically spawned. This spring, a panel of scientists suggested that Atlantic sturgeon in the Chesapeake—and most of the rest of the East Coast—be protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.
Now, biologists are banding together to study the one Bay tributary that still has a reproducing sturgeon population—the James. The study itself represents a turnaround in scientists’ thinking.
“Up until a couple of years ago, all of the biologists assumed that there were so few sturgeon in the James that there was no research you could do,” said Greg Garman, director of the Center for Environmental Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University.
That view began to change in 2004 when a 6-inch fish, too small to have originated from outside the Bay, was found in the river.
The following year, scientists from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science began working with several watermen to place nets in the river to see if they could regularly catch sturgeon as years went by. They did. In 2005, they netted scores of small sturgeon, as well as an 80-pound, 5-foot male. (This year, the tally stood at more than 300 in mid-May.)
This year, at a “Sturgeon Summit” convened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the James River Association, a nonprofit group, scientists from universities as well as state and federal agencies drafted an ambitious sturgeon restoration plan for the river.
Its short-term goal is to stop any further decline in the population. The long-term goal is to establish a self-sustaining stock that would support recreational and commercial fishing and provide ecological benefits to the river’s fish community— a job that would take decades and likely require a large stocking program.
Before that can happen, scientists say, they need to learn what habitats the fish are using, and to make sure they are being protected. To do that, they are tagging and tracking the netted fish to try to determine foraging areas, nursery areas and other habitats—as well as when the sturgeon are using them.
“Before we get to a full-fledged stocking program, we need to answer those questions,” said Albert Spells, Virginia fisheries coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Stocked fish might just be swimming french fries if there is no refuge habitat in the James where they can hide.”
The research also provides information that can immediately help the sturgeon. Working with the Army Corps of Engineers, the scientists are trying to determine when sturgeon forage in areas slated for dredging. This could provide clues about when dredging could take place without affecting the fish.
Bycatch of sturgeon in other fisheries is also thought to be harming the population. Some of the research is aimed at learning what nets are most likely to snag—and avoid—swimming sturgeon.
That could not only help the fish, but also fishermen. If sturgeon are listed under the Endangered Species Act, it could force new regulations on other fisheries to reduce bycatch. With the new information, it’s possible that any such regulations could be fine-tuned in ways to reduce their impact on fishermen while protecting sturgeon.
“The fishermen help us hugely,” Hager said. “They recognize that if this fish becomes threatened, and we can’t develop gear that won’t catch it, it is going to have a major impact on their other fisheries. We are trying to figure out what to do before it hits the fan.”
Because there is no payback in the form of a restored stock in the foreseeable future, most of the research is being done on a shoestring budget. “A lot of this sturgeon work is being done out of the goodness of people’s hearts because they love the fish and they are very interested in it,” Hager said. “But it is woefully underfunded.”
Scientists view sturgeon as an indicator of habitat health because they are bottom-feeding fish that require good water quality.
They also have popular appeal. Sturgeon are an ancient species, dating back more than 100 million years and are covered with armor-like plates rather than scales. They can grow to lengths of 14 feet and live 60 years. They are known for their habit of leaping out of the water, sort of like dolphins. “It is the ‘charismatic megafauna’ of these coastal rivers,” Garman said.
Their interest in the fish was shared by the earliest colonial settlers, who often relied on sturgeon for food and as an important export before settlers learned to grow tobacco—sturgeon are sometimes called the fish that saved Jamestown. Bits of sturgeon are commonly found in abandoned colonial wells. Some indicate that James sturgeon reached lengths of nearly 14 feet.
As part of the research, Garman’s VCU lab is examining sturgeon spines to gain insight into the size and age structure of the population when the first settlers arrived, which would indicate what a “healthy” population might look like.
But the biggest secret scientists would like to unlock is where sturgeon spawn in the river.
It’s thought their spawning ground was once on the solid substrate found outside Richmond in an area known as the Rockets. But that was dynamited in the 1930s to make way for a deep water port. No one knows where they spawn today.
Although several 5-foot males have been netted in recent years, no mature females have been found that could be tagged to lead scientists to spawning areas.
In fact, to this day, no one has seen a “ripe” female sturgeon in the James. The evidence of reproduction is based on the finding of small “young of year” sturgeon, the discovery of several dead spawning-age females in recent years, and a genetic analysis that indicates the James fish are unique from those found in other East Coast rivers.
Geneticists believe the number of adult spawning fish in the river numbers fewer than 300—and may only number in the scores. Females don’t mature until they are 12–15 years old, and then only spawn every three to six years. That means in any given year, only a handful are in the river.
“One of the biggest challenges we have with sturgeon is that there are so few of them, and so much water, that it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack using traditional gears to do monitoring,” Garman said.
To speed up the search, scientists are using acoustic equipment which bounces sound waves off fish. If they can develop an “acoustic signature” unique to sturgeon, they can begin dragging high-tech acoustic equipment over large swaths of the river in search of fish.
Spells said scientists will know their work has paid off when—whether through new high-tech methods of dogged persistence—they track the first female to the spawning grounds. “It is going to happen,” he said. “It is going to happen.”