This morning I joined Times-Dispatch environment reporter Rex Springston, local river guide Mike Ostrander and VCU aquatic biologist Matt Balazik on the Mayo Bridge to look for Atlantic sturgeon that are currently swimming up the James River to spawn. Springston and I wrote about the phenomenon for the front of Wednesday’s T-D.
Earlier this month, Balazik confirmed that the Chesapeake Bay population of Atlantic sturgeon are spawning in the James in the fall by photographing a female he netted releasing eggs. That was down by Hopewell, and it was big news. Proof, finally, of something Balazik has long seen evidence of. The challenge then became finding the actual spawning grounds. While Atlantic sturgeon are thought to spawn on a number of different rivers up and down the East Coast, no one knows exactly where. In fact, according to Balazik, there has never, at least since sturgeon populations crashed in the early 1900s, been a fertilized Atlantic sturgeon egg found in the wild.
For a while today it looked like that would change. After about an hour of swimming with a snorkel and fins, Balazik decided to give up looking for spawning sturgeon and see if he could find their eggs. The first place he looked was in about 1.5 feet of clear swiftly moving water at the base of one of the Mayo Bridge pilings. The rest of us stood on the bridge and watched. Then he gave us the thumbs up.
“Eggs!” he shouted.
Balazik took them back to his lab at VCU to confirm, but it turned out it was a kind of blue-green algae that looked almost identical in shape, color and size. It was disappointing news, but the fact is those eggs are out there someone. Balazik proved they spawn in the James and the falls provides the best habitat to do so. It’s just a matter of where.
No matter what happens with the ongoing egg search, it’s still cool to know that a federally endangered species, a prehistoric fish that’s been swimming since dinosaurs roamed the earth, now swims around in downtown after being fished nearly to extinction over 100 years ago.