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. American shad, hickory shad, striped bass, alwife and blueback herring return to the tidal rivers of the Chesapeake Bay every year for the last tens of thousands of years. These species are often targeted by anglers, mainly for sport, and hundreds anglers in boats of all types can be seen just below the fall line in downtown Richmond trying to catch them form the James River.

There is another critter that swims out of the Atlantic Ocean and up into the James 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 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, often finding its way by latching onto one of the fish listed above.

The Sea Lamprey can grow to nearly three feet in length. It attaches itself to the side of a fish in an instant and 'rasps' away tissue with its many teeth and tongue. The secretions in its mouth keeps a fish's blood from clotting, so the sea lamprey latches on, takes a ride and feeds on a fish on the way up the river. Unfortunately the host fish 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, which I find interesting as I have never seen a dead one on the river bottom. Perhaps it's due to the  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. With a keen eye and masterful net skills, we scooped it into a small mesh net. Once aboard, this critter dazzled the teachers, and me too!  Wow, what a cool animal.  Photo by Anne Wright, VCU.