No off-season for James River sturgeon research

By now the Atlantic sturgeon that made their way up the James River for their fall spawning run have turned around and headed back out toward the ocean. In the past, this is where our knowledge of their whereabouts would end. Researchers knew they went north, generally, but where, exactly? And how quickly? At what depth? Where did they stop along the way?

For the first time, however, some of those questions could be answered.

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

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

Back in September, VCU researcher Matt Balazik chose three male sturgeons that he netted in the tidal James and inserted satellite “B-WET” tags under their dorsal scutes. (B-WET stands for NOAA’s Bay Watershed Education and Training program. That’s where these tiny, titanium tags came from.)

“This is kind of a first…in 2003 they did a couple in the Hudson River,” he said. “But no one has done it since then (with adult fish) and with the more recent technology. They did some juveniles up in Canada…and they were only designed to stay on for a couple months.”

Balazik explained that the tags are programmed to pop off at a certain date (Aug. 11) or if certain conditions occur: “If the fish stays at a certain depth for a week straight, it’ll think that the fish is dead. It’ll corrode and release. If it goes over a depth of 3,000 meters, it’ll ping off and release.”

Sadly, for one five-foot-long male, that’s exactly what happened recently. Balazik was hoping not to have to retrieve a tag so soon, but on November 13 he and VCU professor Anne Wright found one on the beach next to the Lynnhaven Pier. It had been on the fish for about a month. The tag popped off automatically when the fish stayed at the same depth (give or take, considering tidal variations) for over a week.

“We have beautiful data in the river, then it’s out in the ocean and everything is going well,” Balazik said. “It goes from moving all over the place to doing a slow up and down… I fear it was a ship strike.”

So, now two males are left with tags in them. Every 10 minutes or so, the tag collects data on depth, water temperature and location, and stores it in a tiny memory card. But Balazik can’t collect that data until the tag surfaces and can transmit to the satellite — hopefully when it’s scheduled to on Aug. 11.

Credit: VCU

Credit: VCU

“That’s why it’s so nerve wracking,” he said. “You just have to sit here and wait either until something bad happens and the tag pops off prematurely, or you wait until you get some emails from the satellite on Aug. 11.”

In the meantime, Balazik imagines the kind of answers these tags will provide researchers for the first time.

“I want to know where it goes over winter…I want to know, (when) it comes back to the (James), it if all of a sudden, if its way up in Maine, is it like, ‘Oh crap, it’s time for me to go spawn,’ and makes a huge bolt down in like a week or so. Or does it meander down and just turn in.”

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Sturgeon tours on the James

Credit: VCU

Credit: VCU

I’ve got this in the Slate of Events, but I wanted to highlight it here with a post because it looks to be a really cool trip. Our friend Captain Mike Ostrander is offering two September boat tours on the tidal James in search of sturgeon. Along for the ride as the resident expert will be VCU sturgeon researcher Matt Balazik. Considering Atlantic sturgeon are a federally  endangered species, it’s likely this kind of tour is offered no where else on the East Coast. Why? Because no other river has a population viable enough to make it likely to see a sturgeon breach. Pretty cool stuff. Here’s Capt. Mike’s write-up with the details:

Sturgeon Tour on the James with Dr. Matt Balazik

On the evenings of September 4 and September 16, join Dr. Matt Balazik onboard the Spirit of the James for the Sturgeon of the James River Tour. The area on the James between the Appomattox River and Presquile Island is a prime area to see breaching Atlantic sturgeon. Watch carefully for these ancient behemoths to breach (leap completely out of the river) while Dr. Balazik shares information from his research on the sturgeon of the James River.

Atlantic sturgeon, recently placed on the endangered species list, are living fossils that have been swimming in the waters now known as the James River for 120 to 140 million years.

In August, Atlantic sturgeon return to the upper tidal James River on their annual Fall spawning run. They are in the river the entire month of September and into October. This remnant population of ancient sturgeon range from New Brunswick, Canada to the eastern coast of Florida.

We are incredibly lucky to have a spawning population of Atlantic sturgeon here, on the James River, and this tour is a great way for you and your friends to come out and have an excellent chance at seeing them.  There is no guarantee you will see a sturgeon, but we will put you in the best possible position, during the best time of year and at a great time of day to see them.

This 2 1/2-hour tour will depart from Jordan Point Marina at 5 p.m. and return at approximately 7:30 p.m. Join us during this magical tour and peer out over the expanse of river near Presquile Island for breaching sturgeon.

When:    Wednesday, September 4,  5:00 – 7:30pm  &  Monday, September 16,  5:00 – 7:30pm

Cost:      $55 per person 


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