James River Sea Monster: Prehistoric fish given breeding ground near Meadowville

A local myth frightens children and adults who swim in the James River. Catfish as long as a Volkswagen roam the bottom of the river that the first Virginians navigated inland. But there’s an older species of fish that has outsized and outlived the ubiquitous catfish – the Atlantic sturgeon.

The Atlantic sturgeon can grow up to 14 feet long, weigh 800 pounds and live 60 years, but don’t start worrying about your legs and toes in the river; the Atlantic sturgeon doesn’t have teeth, although they look like they should have, they are bottom feeders like the catfish.

The Atlantic sturgeon has been on the endangered species list since 2012 and their population in the James has gone from an estimated 20,000 in the late 1800s to about 300 spawning adults in the James River today. The boney-back fish survived the ice age, but after overfishing for its meat and caviar the sturgeon could fade away if its spawning grounds are not preserved or rebuilt. The Atlantic sturgeon is credited with saving the settlers at Jamestown.

At one time, the spawning grounds of the Atlantic sturgeon existed in most of the rivers that feed the Chesapeake Bay but the hard stony bottoms have been silted over from farming and development. Dredging to allow cargo ships access to Deep Water Terminal in Richmond has also removed much of the stony river bottom. Sturgeon have also been known to be killed by the propellers of boats traveling on the river.

The James River is one of a few rivers on the east coast where the sturgeon swims to fresh water to spawn. It is possible that the York River also has some spawning areas but there is no evidence that the age old sturgeon that once spawned in the Rappahannock, Potomac and Susquehanna do so anymore.

The James River Association (JRA), partnering with a number of other organizations to build spawning reefs, is currently working on their third project just downstream from the Enon/Varina Bridge (Interstate 295).

“One of the first two spawning projects is located at Presquile Island; the other at Crestview Wildlife Refuge,” said Jamie Brunkow, JRAs Lower James Riverkeeper. “We continue to expand our research, [on the reefs] but it’s not as much area as we need it’s like a needle in a haystack.”

Work crews are placing basketball sized granite stones, donated by Luck Stone, on the bottom of the river near the Chesterfield side of the river creating a 70-foot by 300-foot by 2-foot high mound.  Sturgeons need the hard surface of the stone for their eggs to cling to after being hatched. Once hatched, they will live nearby for the following three years before migrating out to the Atlantic. The young sturgeon also use the stone for protection from predators in their early years.

Bunkow, who is supervising the project is excited by the project and hopes to come back to the reef in a few years with other marine scientists to see the results of their labors.

“A key to unlocking the life history of this ancient species is developing a better understanding of their geographical movement and reproductive behavior,” Brunkow said. “The reef project will serve as an underwater laboratory to help shed light on both sides of these questions.

Walter Criest, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), said it took about six months to obtain a permit from the Corp of Engineers to start the project because the state owns the bottom of the river not the counties that border the river on each side.

A large barge and tug boat, donated by Coastal Design, loaded with chunks of gravel and a track hoe scooped and placed each load of gravel carefully on the river bottom.

The stone splashed into the water as each scoop was dispersed last week as the JRA took the press on a river tour to see their handy work.  

The Atlantic sturgeon has been known to majestically break water, seemly taking flight above the James. “There is one report of a sturgeon landing in someone’s boat,” Brunkow said.

Albert Spell, who works with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has been working on the sturgeon project for a number of years.

“In 1997 we captured several sturgeon in the James River and we knew we were on to something, and from there, we are where we are today,” Spells said. “One of the things we have learned through the years is that habitat is a major factor. It’s not just here that we have sturgeon spawning, its starts way up the watershed and this is not one of those warm and fuzzy issues that everyone wants to wrap their arms around. The JRA has taken on that challenge and they’re working with partners throughout the watershed to reduce sedimentation in the river.”

Mr. Spell and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have been catching the sturgeon and tagging them with transmitters so they can track the habits of the fish as it goes out into the Atlantic and then returns to spawn in the James.

The Atlantic Sturgeon is a member of the Acipenseridae family and is among one of the oldest fish species in the world. Its range extends from New Brunswick, Canada to the eastern coast of Florida.

The JRA has partnered with a number of other agencies and private businesses to make the project work, such as VCU, the Nature Conservancy, NOAA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Luck Stone, Coastal Design, the Mary Anderson Foundation, Chesapeake Scientific, Virginia Institute of Marine Science, USGA and the Atlantic Coastal Fish Habitat Partnership.

These groups, along with a U.S. grant have funded the $200,000 project. You too can get involved to help the partnership develop, refine or achieve its goals with conservation strategies, funding and partnering at the national, regional and local levels.

For more information go to atlanticfishhabitat.org or contact Emily Greene at 703-842-0740 or egreene@asmfc.org

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