Several six- to seven-foot specimens of this ancient fish -- they’ve been around since the dinosaurs –- were spotted this week swimming below bridges in downtown Richmond. Scientists strongly suspect the giant fish are spawning in the waters just below the rapids that mark the fall line of the James.
If so, it’s cause for scientific and restoration celebration.
Recovery of the species has been difficult, in part because sturgeon don’t reproduce until they’re at least 10 years old and weigh 150 pounds. But efforts to reduce pollution, restore habitat, and protect remaining sturgeon appear to be paying off. Scientists, anglers, and boaters have seen the occasional large sturgeon in the James for decades, and younger, smaller specimens caught in recent years (including this little guy netted and released by Chesapeake Bay Foundation educators a few years ago) strongly suggested the fish were actively reproducing in the James.
This week’s gathering of several large fish in the rocky waters of Richmond seems to confirm Atlantic sturgeon not only are spawning in the James but doing so in the autumn rather than the spring of the year. It’s enough to attract lots of attention, including an article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch and this email note from Captain Mike Ostrander, a James River fishing guide and outfitter, sent on Tuesday to his many friends and associates:
“Chris Hull (river lover and active James River Outdoor Coalition member) called me on Sunday evening saying he was looking at four sturgeon above the Mayo Bridge. He watched them for over half an hour. I was too far away to make it, so Lynda (Richardson, Ostrander's wife and noted nature photographer) and I went out to the bridge last night around 5 p.m., and after an hour of looking we started to think we may not see one. Ralph and Cricket White (long-time manager of James River Park and his wife) showed up, too. The four of us were talking about 200 yards from the south side of the bridge, I looked down and yelled, ‘STURGEON!’
“Lynda took this photo. No doubt an Atlantic sturgeon. We saw two fish…but only saw one at a time. The first (the one in the picture) swam out from under the bridge, showed itself right below us for about a minute, turned back, and went under the bridge. Another came out, swam upriver around a pile of rocks, and continued upriver towards the fall line. It was awesome.
"About 20 minutes after we saw the sturgeon, Ralph White had a curious smile on his face. He said, ‘Wow. When I first started working for the city I told them I would work until the sturgeon returned.’ He then said, ‘I can now retire. Retire a happy man.’ The smile on his face was a little larger than his usual big smile.”
Of the photograph Lynda Richardson took that evening, Ostrander says, “This image is one of my favorite all-time images taken on the James. It's beautiful, but it also marks a milestone for many people's hard work.”
That it does.
Chesapeake Bay Foundation
Photo credit: Top, middle, CBF; bottom, Lynda Richardson.