Annual Visitor to the James

April 14, 2011.  One of the rites of spring is the annual spawning run of anadromous fish from the ocean to the fresh waters of the James River.  These include American shad, hickory shad, striped bass and blueback herring.  These species are often targeted by anglers for sport, with hundreds of boats able to be seen in downtown Richmond full of anglers trying to catch them.

There is also another critter that comes out of the ocean and up the James along with these fish.  This animal does not have bones, and looks like something from a sci-fi movie.  This wild looking parasite swims up the river by the thousands each year, and we don't often hear too much about them.  Perhaps it's because they have a mouth full of teeth, and they suck the blood out of their 'hosts'.  The Sea Lamprey is a very cool creature that finds its way into rivers all along the Atlantic coasts of Europe and America.

The Sea Lamprey can grow to nearly three feet in length.  It attaches itself to the side of a fish and 'rasps' away tissue with its many teeth and tongue.  The lamprey also has secretions in its mouth that keeps blood from clotting, so the fish unfortunately usually dies from either blood loss or infection.

The Sea Lamprey swims, or rides up the James for one reason ... to spawn.  Once they spawn, they die (I have never seen a dead one on the river bottom, thank you turtles!).  Once the lampreys eggs hatch, the young emerge in larval form and live buried in the mud for three to seven years.  They filter feed in the mud until they have metamorphosed into their adult form.  Then they swim out to the sea to live out their adult lives, and once its their turn, they too will swim back up the James River to spawn, then die.  --Capt. Mike

The Photo's Story:  While out on the James with a group of teachers from Prince George High School, we encountered this Sea Lamprey swimming around on the surface of the river.  Luckily we were able to scoop it up in a small mesh net.  Once aboard, this critter dazzled the teachers, and me too!  Wow, what a cool animal.  Photo by Anne Wright, VCU.