Researcher: James River sturgeon starting to swim into view

September 1, 2014 · 3 minute read
Matt Balazik, holding an Atlantic sturgeon, aboard his reasearch boat on the tidal James River. Credit: Matt Balazik

Matt Balazik holds an Atlantic sturgeon aboard his research boat on the tidal James River. Credit: Matt Balazik

I first wrote about Atlantic sturgeon in the James River in fall of 2009. I was the Times-Dispatch’s Outdoors columnist then, and I had met up with VCU fish biologist Matt Balazik and the James River Association’s Lower James Riverkeeper Chuck Frederickson near Hopewell to watch them conduct research on the prehistoric fish as they came up river to spawn.

Five years later, thanks to Balazik and a host of other agencies and individuals, so much more is known about the James River subspecies of sturgeon, a beast that was fished to near extinction (and onto the endangered species list).

I wrote a post on Friday about the sturgeon tours Balazik and good friend Mike Ostrander offer every Thursday in September. And thinking about those tours, about paying customers heading out in search of breaching sturgeon a few miles downstream of Richmond, made me wonder what Balazik is up to and where his research is headed these days.

Balazik said perhaps the biggest change from five years ago is that now the evidence is irrefutable that sturgeon in the James have a dual spring and fall spawn. It’s a rare trait in fish — most spawn only in the spring — and it’s taken years of data collection by Balazik to get to this point.

Another big discovery: This year, for the first time, Balazik figured out where the sturgeon “stage” before making there runs up river, sometimes as far as downtown Richmond, to procreate. Balazik didn’t want to give away the location in the tidal James where they stage, but, he said, “there are thousands in that hole. It’s this little sturgeon Mecca.”

Balazik returning a sturgeon to the James near Hopewell in October 2013.

Balazik returning a sturgeon to the James near Hopewell in October 2013.

When you consider that most adult sturgeon weigh well over 100 pounds — some over 300 — that’s an amazing thought: hundreds and hundreds of them stacked up on top of each other. Balazik said the males generally leave the staging area first.

“A lot of them have already made their initial run up. They’ll sit in an area close to a spawning ground and wait for the females. (Based on telemetry tags put into the fish, we know) one male has already gone past the rock quarries (just downstream of Richmond). I’m pretty sure they’ve been up to the Fall Line.”

I remember the hubbub two years ago this fall when what was likely a big male was spotted cruising around beneath the Mayo Bridge. Seeing it was like watching Richmond’s history swim back into the present. People lined up to watch.

Unlike the males, Balazik continued, the females’ “run is literally like a day. They’ll go all the way to the spawning grounds in one day.” A 60-mile run to spawn is nothing, he said.

“We’re still working on how they spawn. Are they one and done? We have data from two fish that show that they may do a practice run. We don’t know.”

A sturgeon in a holding tank. Credit: Matt Balazik

A sturgeon in a holding tank. Credit: Matt Balazik

Balazik and others think there are spawning grounds on the hard bedrock — Atlantic sturgeon must have a rocky substrate to spawn on — at the Presquile cut-through and around the I-295 Varina-Enon Bridge. As for Richmond, while they haven’t officially confirmed any spawning activity at the fall line in downtown for years, “that’s perfect habitat when you think about it.”

So, keep that in mind, Richmonders, when you’re crossing the Mayo Bridge, putting a boat in at Ancarrow’s Landing or otherwise using that stretch of river. An animal older than many dinosaurs could be swimming around beneath you. In the meantime, check out Balazik’s sturgeon blog to lean more.