Sturgeon & Eagles

August 19, 2011.  Phenomenon is not the right word, but it's close.  An event has taken place on the James River for eons, and over the last couple of years has regained a lot of attention.  Beginning in late August and lasting into October, one of the oldest fish species in the world returns to the James River, while in almost all of their historic habitats, there are none returning or present.  Universities and federal government agencies are paying close attention to this, and so am I.

Of course, we are talking about Atlantic Sturgeon.

Sturgeon in the James River have a long history ... more than we will ever know.  Over 400 years ago, during early colonial days sturgeon were caught and eaten, saving some colonists from starvation. At that time, these fish grew to 14 feet or more, and weighed over 800 pounds. Once established as a food source, catch rates kept climbing and overfishing lasted into the 1890's, when the harvest peaked.  By 1900 the population crashed and continued to decline because of pollution and habitat destruction.  

But today they are noticeably back.  In fact they are back right now and in the process of possibly spawning (researchers are trying to find out if, in fact, they are spawning this time of year. Historically they have been springtime spawners).  While they are in the river, sturgeon offer incredible visual acrobatics, called "breaching"  When a sturgeon breaches it rockets out of the water, leaping into the air and then crashing down on its side, back into the river.  You generally hear more than you see, but with a slow cruise along certain parts of the river your chances are pretty good you will see one or two.  When you see a sturgeon breach, it looks like a 10 foot section of telephone pole comes out of the river and is dropped on it's side from 15 feet in the air.   

There are plenty of theories why sturgeon breach, but scientists don't really know why the do it.  But they do know one thing ... when a sturgeon breaches .... it's amazing.  Smaller than their historic sizes, Atlantic sturgeon today can grow to nine feet and weigh over 300 pounds. Most fish are males in the five to six foot range, and weigh around 100 pounds.

Like bald eagles, this species has given researchers, and river lovers something to talk about and investigate.  There is a great amount of research going on up and down the East Coast on sturgeon and Matt Balazik, a biologist and sturgeon researcher, from Virginia Commonwealth University, continues to be a leader in this field.  He recently began his late summer/fall river work with Atlantic Sturgeon and will now spend many days a week out on the James, from the City of Richmond well down below Hopewell searching for and capturing as many as possible, to weigh, tag and release.  VCU has been a leader in getting research dollars funneled towards restoration of Atlantic Sturgeon on the James River.  

For a short time, Discover The James will offer Sturgeon & Eagle Tours on every bald eagle tour taken.  There is about a mile stretch of river in Jefferson's Reach that Atlantic Stureon have been populating during this possible spawning season.  Why are they there?  Well there are theories, and I have one that Matt shared with me, but you'll have to come out on the boat to find out.  --Capt. Mike

The Photos Stories?  Top Right:  Here Matt Balazik is holding one of the biggest Atlantic sturgeon he'd ever seen.  More than likely this is a female because of her size.  Estimated at over 300 pounds and more than seven feet long, this sturgeon was released safely back into the James to continue on her way.  Photo credit:  VCU/Center for Environmental Studies.

Bottom Left:  August 18, 2011 ... the first sturgeon capture of the late summer/fall season.  I spoke with Matt soon after this first fish was caught and he mentioned that two of the sturgeon he had caught and tagged last year have been recorded passing by Jamestown, verified returns to the James River.  This data is received via a combination of a tag on the fish, a receiver on a channel marker buoy in the river, and this data transferred via satellite in real time.  Good stuff.  Photo credit:  VCU/Center for Environmental Studies.

For more into on VCU's Atlantic Sturgeon Research, click here.

For a short story on one of the most interesting events I have ever seen on the James, click here.