A Day on the James with Sturgeon
October 2011. Today was the third in a series of trips on the James River with science teachers from Prince George High School. Through a grant at VCU Life Sciences, Anne Wright, has developed a series of teacher workshops that highlight the migration patterns for certain species of anadromous fish that annually inhabit the James River. These fish include the mighty Atlantic sturgeon, blueback herring, American shad and hickory shad.
What is an anadromous fish? They are fish that live in the ocean, or in saltwater, and migrate up rivers along the coast, into freshwater in order to spawn.
Over the past two years, the same group of teachers has been ‘Discovering the James’ with me on the Discovery Barge II through Anne’s workshops. Last fall, we took a trip downriver and studied the history of the river while learning about the migration patterns of herring and shad. This past spring we enjoyed a day with bald eagles, blueback herring and were introduced to the odd looking, anadromous sea lamprey.
This recent trip, in early October was a very special one, as we ventured downriver from the Richmond Yacht Basin to Presquile Island … the home base for serious Atlantic sturgeon research. Our goal was to watch the best team of Atlantic Sturgeon researchers on the James River lead by VCU doctoral candidate, Matt Balazik. His team included brother Martin Balazik and fellow sturgeon researcher, Bree Langford.
We were to meet Matt’s team at Presquile Island around 9:30AM. When we arrived they already had two nets in the river, soaking for about 40 minutes. The 600 foot-long nets were set near the edge of the river channel, just off a very large flat. The gillnets had different mesh sizes, or size of the square holes in the net. The smaller net had 10 ½” mesh, while the other was 13”. These were very big nets, but we were after very big fish.
Atlantic sturgeon grow to over 300 pounds on the James River. Historically they could exceed 800 pounds. The search for this prehistoric fish kept us all at the edge of our pontoon seats. Matt and his team positioned the boat and began to pull the first net. On that first pull of the smaller mesh net, about half way into it, Martin yelled, “Fish On!” Sure enough a 5-foot sturgeon was entangled in the net. They quickly pulled it onboard, untangled the sturgeon, and placed it into a large holding tank onboard his research vessel.
The second, larger mesh net yielded no sturgeon. As the nets were checked, they were placed back into the river for another set. While they soaked in the river, waiting for another sturgeon to swim by, Matt’s team and our team headed to Presquile Island. Matt had his equipment already set up. All the electronics and medical tools were ready to perform. After securing the boats, Matt carefully carried the sturgeon onto the shore and placed it into a large, shallow tank. Once in the tank he ran a small amount of electricity into the water, and the great fish instantly turned upside down. This process off adding a small amount of electrical current calmed the male sturgeon.
Everything was ready for Matt to start the procedure of medically inserting a radio beacon tag in the sturgeon. He made a small incision on the bottom of the fish, slid the radio beacon tag into him, and sewed the incision perfectly with a series of stitches. Matt worked with the steady hands of an ichthyologist surgeon. Matt was, for the moment … the “Sturgeon General”. Once the fish was stitched, the electricity was turned off and it immediately turned upright and was ready for release. A moment later the feisty Atlantic sturgeon was again swimming in the James River preparing for a return to the sea.
The radio tag will track the migration of this fish for years to come, offering valuable information to Matt’s team, but also Anne’s team of science teachers. They will also study the tracking information provided by this fish and many others that Matt has already captured, tagged and released. The teachers will present the information they gain back in the classroom.
This valuable work will not only prove to be instrumental for the Atlantic sturgeon, but also inspire future generations of ichthyologist, fishing guides, science teachers, outreach specialists and environmental researchers they present this information to the students at Prince George High School.
The Photos Stories? Upper Right: The Prince George High School science teachers are watching Matt's team work the sturgeon nets just below Presquile Island on the James River.
Upper Left: Matt carries the Atlantic sturgeon from the holding tank on the VCU research vessel to the holding tank on Presquile Island. This tank is where the radio tag will be surgically implanted.
Lower Right: The PGHS team looks on as Matt locates the point of incision. Martin Balazik, one of Matt's team members, is in the far background.
Middle Left: The steady hands of the 'Sturgeon General' (Matt Balazik) sew up the incision after the raido tag had been implanted into the body cavity of the Atlantic sturgeon. Here he is midway through tying a series of stitches.
Lower Left: The happy Atlantic sturgeon is inches away from the river's surface. Matt explained that tossing them back into the river, is the easiest way to release them. In fact, that is how they usually hit the water when the breach. With a little photoshop action, perhaps I can claim that I captured a sturgeon breaching and this is the fish just before it hit the water. Hmmmmm .... looks like Matt and I may have a project for next August when these prehistoric fish return to the James River once again.