The Great Return of the Atlantic Sturgeon

August 30, 2018 · 3 minute read

Life on earth is driven by change. Our planet’s biology is in a constant state of flux, which makes it all the more remarkable that for the past 150 million years, sturgeon have remained so unchanged by evolution. They are living fossils, looking much the same as when they first appeared on earth. As a family of creatures, sturgeon have even outlived some of Earth’s continents. They were here before T. rex, Triceratops, and Brontosaurus. They’re older than mammals, birds, and flowering plants. Sturgeon have proven so resilient that they’ve managed to survive and flourish through meteor strikes, mass extinctions, volcanic eruptions, ice ages, and drastic shifts in tectonic plates.

An Atlantic sturgeon breaches on the tidal James River. Credit: Don West

Yet despite these tremendous obstacles, at no point in this fish’s 150-million-year evolutionary history have they faced challenges as imposing as those of the modern era. Consider the last 150 years – 1/1,000,000 of the sturgeon’s time on Earth: In 1850 the Atlantic sturgeon was still abundant, by 1900 it was nearly extinct, and today, in a remarkable (yet tentative) environmental success story, the species has managed to swim its way back from the brink of extinction to a population that seems stable, even slowly growing. A miraculous comeback. A Great Return.

There are many reasons for this budding recovery. Virginia banned the commercial fishing of sturgeon in 1974, but at the time many thought this formality was too little too late. They were too few to fish. Sturgeon were feared to be extirpated from the James for much of the 1900s. Although they survived in local rumors and tall tales, scientists had little-to-no hard evidence to confirm their presence. But ecological recovery takes time. It wasn’t until the 2000s when verified sightings started appearing – at first in a slow trickle, growing more promising each passing year. In 2002 and 2004, two juvenile sturgeon were captured in the James – proof of their presence, and circumstantial evidence that they were breeding. Five sturgeon were struck by commercial vessels in 2005 – a sad fact, but one with hopeful implications.

In 2007, the first thorough analysis of sturgeon populations blew previous expectations out of the water. By documenting watermen’s bycatch, researchers were able to identify 175 sturgeon in the James. Scientists at VCU, VIMS, and other institutions have since developed strategies for tracking these fish, giving us valuable insights into their real-time location, movements, and behavior. Ongoing restoration efforts and federal protections have been enacted to secure these population gains. Ecotourism is on the rise, and the sturgeon’s rebound has been embraced by local businesses. Today, at last, we are confident that decades of hard work and activism are finally paying off.

VCU researcher Matt Balazik grapples with a large Atlantic sturgeon caught near Hopewell in 2009.

But threats remain. Each year, sturgeon migrate hundreds of miles upstream to spawn in the James, and each year’s version of their Great Return pits these fish against new obstacles. Questions remain regarding the scarcity of juvenile sturgeon, the impacts of the Surry-Skiffes transmission line, and the
effects of massive industrial water intakes, especially at Dominion’s Chesterfield Power Station. Collisions with commercial vessels continue, and regular dredging of the James River’s shipping channel wreaks havoc on potential spawning habitat, already threatened by sediment and development across the watershed.

For years, the James River Association and partners have worked to minimize these risks. Our Action Network connects conservation-minded Virginians with their representatives statewide. Our volunteers stabilize streambanks, reduce sediment pollution, and multiply our efforts. Our partners monitor populations, conduct cutting-edge research, and even construct artificial spawning reefs. Across the watershed, locals are standing up and speaking out in support of these steadfast creatures, whose 150- million-year narrative will continue… for at least another chapter.

Their saga has been a story of resiliency and success, but the last few pages remain unwritten. Does the Atlantic Sturgeon’s Great Return have a happy ending? There are many reasons for hope, but the answer is up to all of us.