I was in a boat in Virginia’s James River recently, cruising past plantation houses and feeling the currents of history. I was upstream from Jamestown, the first English colony to survive in North America.
My guide on the river, Chuck Frederickson, told a story about the colony as we motored over the choppy, gray water. More than two thirds of the 214 settlers died in the harsh winter of 1609, during what they called the “starving time.”
Then in the spring, the survivors saw something miraculous surging up the river: an armada of dinosaur fish, massive as logs, with bony armor, forked tails, sloped heads and dangling whiskers.
They were Atlantic sturgeon, returning up the James River to spawn. They can grow up to 14 feet long and weigh 800 pounds.
“When they saw this huge influx of sturgeon coming back in, they said they could literally go out in the river and spear these fish with their swords,” said Frederickson, the Lower James Riverkeeper (pictured above). “It was a huge food source and it probably saved the colony from starvation.”
Sturgeon are sometimes described as the “foundation fish.” This is because they allowed the English to keep their toehold in the New World, said Albert Spells, Virginia fisheries coordinator for the U.S. and Wildlife Service.
“Sturgeon is the animal that saved America,” Spells said. “But for Atlantic sturgeon, we might be having this conversation in French or Spanish right now. So we stand on the backs of sturgeon.”
Despite their historic significance, however, today sturgeon are at risk of extinction. The National Marine Fisheries Service in October proposed protecting Atlantic sturgeon as an endangered species in the Chesapeake Bay region and elsewhere along the East Coast.
Fishermen in the late 19th and early 20th centuries massacred the passive, slow-reproducing giants for their eggs, better known as caviar, Spells said. Dams blocked their passage upriver, and silt smothered their breeding grounds.
Some watermen fear that an endangered status for sturgeon will mean that the federal government will impose sweeping new restrictions on what nets they can use for all kinds of fish, so sturgeon aren’t caught accidentally.
“That could have a catastrophic impact,” said one Virginia waterman. “It could close most of Virginia’s fisheries.”
But Kim Damon Randall, endangered species coordinator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, said this fear is overblown.
“There may be times of year when they shouldn’t set their nets, or in particular areas, or mesh size restrictions, or other types of restrictions,” Damon Randall said. “We wouldn’t say that they couldn’t fish at all. We would try to work with the fishermen to make sure they could still operate their fisheries but not take Atlantic sturgeon.”
She added, however, that boat speed limits in the James River could be considered to protect sturgeon from being killed by boat strikes.
Some researchers worry that an endangered species status for Atlantic sturgeon could impede efforts in Maryland and elsewhere to catch and release sturgeon, and extract eggs and sperm from them, as part of efforts to help the fish reproduce artificially.
“While an endangered listing will increase public awareness of sturgeon issues and could benefit certain sturgeon populations, it will have a large impact on Maryland conservation strategies,” said Brian Richardson, a biologist leading a sturgeon restoration effort for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, in an email. “It will be difficult to continue our captive breeding program or our sturgeon reward program under endangered status, and these projects could come to an end.”
Damon Randall, of the National Marine Fisheries Service, said an endangerment listing for sturgeon would not shut down sturgeon research or restoration efforts. She said scientists would still be able to catch sturgeon for reproduction, but they would have to get special scientific research permits under the federal Endangered Species Act.
Sturgeon have not spawned naturally in Maryland rivers in decades, researchers say. Virginia’s James River is the only confirmed place left in the Chesapeake Bay watershed where a breeding population of sturgeon remains.
In the James River south of Richmond, scientists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) are trying to help the last few hundred of these living fossils reproduce. Sturgeon need to lay their eggs on hard, rocky bottoms. So researchers directed barges to dump tons of granite into the river.
Sonic tracking devices have been attached to the fins of 100 sturgeon in the river.
The hope is that building more nurseries for these sturgeon will allow them to someday repopulate the whole Chesapeake Bay and eventually the East Coast.
There are hints of hope for sturgeon elsewhere in the East. In the Gulf of Maine, Atlantic sturgeon are moving into rivers where they have not been seen for a long time, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Short-nosed sturgeon are multiplying in the New York’s Hudson River, with more than 60,000 breeding adults in the river today.
Any overall recovery for Atlantic sturgeon, however, is likely to be a slow one, biologists say, because the fish (which can live up to 60 years) do not reach sexual maturity until they are 10 to 15 years old and then only spawn every two to three years.
But the construction of more spawning habitat in the James River could create a rocky, underwater cradle for the fish. And from this breeding ground could rise the return of the ancient armada that saved Jamestown.
By Tom Pelton
Chesapeake Bay Foundation
(Photos by NOAA, at top, Pelton, VCU, and Pelton)