Chesapeake News and Events
The "Most Anti-Environmental" Congress in History

The Bay Offers Glimpses of Amazing Creatures

Humpback whale
Two of the Chesapeake Bay region’s more unusual critters made headlines this week.

Humpback whales are turning up in remarkable numbers along the Virginia coast and the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, thanks apparently to mild winter weather that has kept their favorite food (bait fish) closer to shore.

While the whales are not rare visitors to the Virginia coast – they migrate annually from Greenland to the Caribbean to spend winters in warmer waters -- it is unusual for so many of the behemoths to be congregating in these parts. The Virginian-Pilot reported this week that more than 30 different individual whales had been identified off Virginia Beach, where typically only five or six individuals are seen.

“This season is epic,” Jeff Parks, who captains a whale watching tour at the beach, told the newspaper. “I’ve been doing this for 30 years and I’ve never seen anything like it.”

The paper reported that last weekend, “humpbacks were threading between fishing boats trolling for rockfish near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. On Parks’ boat, jaws dropped as dorsal fins broke the surface and water streamed off massive, rolling backs.

“This is amazing,” gasped Carmel Saucer, who was on board with her husband, Ken, and 13-year-old son, Austin. “We’ve lived here for 20 years and this is the first time we’ve done this. Why is it that you never go see the things close to home that other people come so far to see?”

To read more, click here.

Atlantic sturgeon, prehistoric fish that have been around since the dinosaurs, are also in the news this week. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that it is formally designating the fish endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act. The move, effective April 6,SturgeonAP should provide greater protection for Atlantic sturgeon and its habitat.

Atlantic sturgeon were once so abundant in Chesapeake Bay waters that they supported important fisheries for their meat, caviar, and leather-like hide. But as NOAA noted, “While the historic range of Atlantic sturgeon included major estuary and river systems from Labrador to Florida, Atlantic sturgeon are now thought to be absent from at least 14 rivers they used historically, with spawning thought to occur in only 20 of 38 known historic spawning rivers.

“The most significant threats to the species are unintended catch of Atlantic sturgeon in some fisheries; dams that block access to spawning areas; poor water quality, which harms development of sturgeon larvae and juveniles; dredging of historical spawning areas; and vessel strikes. As a result, NOAA Fisheries determined that listing sturgeon under the Endangered Species Act is warranted.”

Sturgeon are long-lived, slowly reproducing fish that have a distinctly primitive look, with a long snout and  armored plates called skutes along their length. Sturgeon can grow as large as 14 feet and weigh 800 SturgeonCBF1pounds. Native Americans once captured them with lassos, riding and wrestling them to the shore. Thousands of large skutes have been found in archaeological sites at Jamestown, testifying to the fish’s importance as a food source for the early settlers.

Because of their steadily declining numbers over the years, however, Virginia outlawed commercial harvesting of Atlantic sturgeon in 1974; a national ban was put in place in 1998.

The James River below Richmond contains one of the few known spawning populations of this ancient fish. A NOAA report in 2007 estimated the number of spawning females in the river at fewer than 300. The photo above is of a baby sturgeon, netted a few years ago in the James by Chesapeake Bay Foundation educators during a school field trip near Hopewell, Va. It’s proof positive the fish are reproducing in the river.

To encourage spawning in the James, Virginia Commonwealth University and the James River Association have dumped rock in the river near Presquile National Wildlife Refuge in an effort to provide the rocky bottom habitat that sturgeon prefer for their eggs.

Pretty incredible. Even in its currently degraded state, the Chesapeake Bay offers an opportunity to see one of the world’s largest creatures, as well as one of its oldest. Imagine the rich menagerie of life that a restored Bay could offer!

Chuck Epes
Chesapeake Bay Foundation

(Photos, top to bottom: iSTock; Associated Press; CBF)


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Apparently, a couple boats out of Rock Hall, MD, reported seeing a whale in the bay, below the Bay Bridge, on 2/15.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)