VCU Rice Center

Atlantic sturgeon

Restoration of Atlantic sturgeon in Virginia’s coastal rivers

The Atlantic sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrhynchus) is a biological and historical superlative. In addition to being the largest and longest-lived aquatic organism in the Atlantic rivers of North America, the Atlantic sturgeon played a critical role in the establishment of the first English settlement as Jamestown’s ‘founding fish’ and was (and remains) culturally significant to Native Americans throughout the region. Following centuries of over-fishing, habitat alteration, and pollution, this migratory species has been extirpated from many Chesapeake Bay tributaries and — in Virginia — persists as a small but viable population only in the James River. As a consequence of the species’ long decline and current rarity, biologists understand very little about sturgeon behavior, movements and reproduction in Virginia waters. This lack of knowledge prevents effective management and restoration of the species in Virginia. In recognition of its imperiled status, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) recently proposed the Atlantic sturgeon for listing as a federally threatened species. A closely related fish, the shortnose sturgeon, may have also been native to Virginia waters and is federally endangered.

Greg Garman, Ph.D., director of VCU’s Center for Environmental Studies, along with Stephen McIninch, Ph.D., assistant professor and graduate student Matt Balazik, are leading this group effort to help restore Atlantic sturgeon to the James River and the Chesapeake Bay. Since 2006, a consortium of federal agencies, universities and advocacy groups, including USFWS, NOAA, VIMS (Seagrant), VCU Rice Center, the U.S. Corps of Engineers, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and the James River Association, has pursued an ambitious goal: Restore the Atlantic sturgeon to its native range and historical stature within Virginia waters. Virginia is not alone in its attempts to restore the Atlantic sturgeon to native waters. Several Mid-Atlantic States, including New York, Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania, have undertaken successful conservation and restoration programs for the species.

Specific research activities

Habitat utilization assessment and restoration
Quantify temporal/spatial patterns of movement by Atlantic sturgeon in key tributaries and nearshore waters using active and passive tracking technologies and geospatial analysis and integrating the tracking data with high-resolution benthic habitat data to define essential habitat for various life history stages of the sturgeon. This array enhances other coastal efforts on sturgeon and other fishes.

Restoration of spawning and nursery habitat through placement/replacement of hard bottom material to mainstream areas of the James River, Va.
Clean, hard bottom habitats with interstitial spaces are preferred spawning habitat for many fish species. Unfortunately, much of this preferred habitat in the tidal freshwater James River has been lost through channel creation and maintenance or buried under sediment from numerous natural and anthropogenic sources. The first of several planned artificial spawning reefs for sturgeon, each the size of a football field, was installed in the James River in February 2010. We are actively monitoring the success of this reef for sturgeon spawning. For more information and video of the installation of the sturgeon spawning reef visit the VCU News Center.

Population monitoring
Describe critical population parameters, including abundance, age and size structure, growth, genetics and diet, for sturgeon to support ongoing management and restoration activities. A recent study analyzed age and growth rates of Atlantic sturgeon spanning a 400-year period by comparing colonial-era Atlantic sturgeon spines from middens in colonial Jamestown to sturgeon spines recently collected from the James River. The results of this analysis were recently published.

Balazik et al. 2010. Changes in age composition and growth characteristics of Atlantic sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrinhus oxyrinchus) over 400 years. Biol. Lett. Online, 17 March 2010.

Expand knowledge of sturgeon mortality factors, such as by-catch, ship strikes and dredging
Evaluate a wide range of potential threats to sturgeon, including the impact of by-catch, vessel interactions and dredging.

Identification of additional spawning and nursery grounds
Conduct side scan benthic mapping and substrate analysis of Chesapeake Bay tributaries to determine the extent of appropriate spawning habitat.

This is one of the first suspected female sturgeon caught in the James River in decades. “She” was caught on Sept. 11, 2009, was more than 7 feet long, and weighed about 300 pounds.

Ultrasonic tracking tag used to help determine sturgeon movements. Some tags are surgically implanted and some are attached externally. The tags help us determine spawning grounds and staging locations in the James River.

Fishery habitat in the tidal Chesapeake Bay has changed significantly during the past 75 years as a result of channel alteration, maintenance dredging and sedimentation. Some of these changes may increase the vulnerability of Atlantic sturgeon to vessel strikes, which were implicated in at least 16 mortalities during 2007-08 in a short reach of the tidal James River.

If you notice a dead sturgeon on the river, please contact VCU at (804) 827-0236 or email balazikmt@vcu.edu.

» Supporters of the Atlantic sturgeon restoration project [PDF]