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Illustration by Doug Thompson
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Photo by Chuck Frederickson, JRA
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As part of ongoing research on the Atlantic sturgeon, VCU biologist Matt Balazik captures the fish and implants electronic tracking sensors so that he and other researchers can follow the species’ movements in the James River. photos by Rich Press, NOAA
In May 1779, as the shad made their annual run up the James River, Martin Hawkins found his way to the falls, like hundreds of others, and waded onto one of the river's many rocky outcroppings, searching for a catch to bring home for the dinner table. As Hawkins knelt beside the water, an Atlantic sturgeon twice his size swam up to scratch itself against a rock, just as a dog would scratch behind its ears. Eager to haul the monster fish out of the water, Hawkins silently snuck up, crouched beside it and attempted to grab the sturgeon by its gills.
What happened next is the stuff of Richmond legend. The leviathan jerked the man into the river, and he flopped onto the fish's back. Suddenly, the startled sturgeon took off, dragging Hawkins along like a rodeo cowboy latched onto a bull. After a few moments, the two of them disappeared into the roiling current. "The spectators were aghast with fright," a New York Times article recounted more than a century later, citing a retold version of the event. "They thought their friend was lost." Seconds later, the sturgeon and its rider splashed up to the surface. Hawkins was still holding on to the fish.
The sturgeon dove in and out of the water as it thrashed a half-mile downriver toward Mayo's Bridge. Both the fish and the fisherman were exhausted from the tandem ride, but Hawkins seized control and steered the sturgeon toward a sand bar. Here, the river spat them both up on shore. Hawkins had drawn a large crowd of spectators, who cheered as he safely landed the monster ashore. Triumphant, Hawkins served the 300-pound fish to a raucous crowd that night, and, as the Times recounted, "the night that followed this episode was spent in high glee, and the distinguished adventurer was ever afterward known as Martin Hawkins, the sturgeon rider."
The fisherman's adventure was not the first of its kind: Stories passed down through Virginia's Pamunkey Indian tribe told of boys accomplishing similar feats as a rite of passage.
The New York Times' account of Hawkins was published in 1896 — more than a hundred years after the fact. By then, the fish had disappeared almost entirely from the James River. The descendants of Martin Hawkins were around to celebrate their forefather's daring feat; the descendants of the sturgeon he netted were nowhere to be found.
Hawkins may have been an innocent fisherman looking to feed his family, but his successful harvest of the sturgeon was a precedent followed dangerously well by later generations. A booming fishing industry arrived not long after Hawkins passed away — by the late 19th century, the sturgeon had been all but vanquished from the James River.
For a long time, we didn't think there was any sturgeon population left," explains Jamie Brunkow, who works for the James River Association as a "riverkeeper," an environmental steward overseeing the waterway from the city's fall line down to the Atlantic Ocean.
Sightings of the ancient creature had not been reliably recorded in the river for decades. Then, in 2004, a sight not seen for 100 years alerted river-watchers that, just maybe, there was hope for the fish. A newly hatched sturgeon only 6 inches long was found alive and kicking below the fall line of the James, near Berkeley Plantation. The sturgeon stays in its freshwater home for years after birth, so this discovery was not an example of a wayward youth, but a sign of ongoing activity.
Since 2007, researchers and conservationists at Virginia Commonwealth University and the James River Association have worked tirelessly to restore the sturgeon to its ancestral home. Combining corporate support, volunteer help, environmental awareness and biological data, the efforts are paying dividends, evident in more active spawning of the sturgeon in just the past couple years. "We're going for a point where the species is strong and healthy," says Brunkow. "Every year, we learn more."
Now, hundreds of sturgeon are finding their way back to the lower James River, which stretches from the Chesapeake Bay to downtown Richmond. It seems that mature sturgeon have begun to reclaim their ancestral empire. In order to understand the significance of this slow but steady recovery, one must first understand the history of the fish, which spans hundreds of millions of years.
The Atlantic sturgeon is built like a stegosaurus with fins, armored with five rows of bony plates, called scutes, which shield its muscular back from the wear and tear. Unlike the stegosaurus, however, the prehistoric fish has managed to avoid destruction, extinction and radical evolution since the Triassic Period. Two hundred million years ago, the first ray-finned fish appeared, and since the Cretaceous Period, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, the physical qualities of the sturgeon have remained basically unchanged.
Despite its massive size, the gentle giant is a docile creature. When it formed so many millennia ago, it was built without teeth of any kind; instead, it feeds by sucking up food from the floor, like a 300-pound vacuum cleaner. Most sturgeon reach this impressive weight and stretch to an equally noteworthy 10 feet, but particularly gargantuan examples can sometimes grow to 15 feet and weigh in at more than a staggering 800 pounds.
Understandably, the Atlantic sturgeon was king of the waters around the landmass that became North America for the vast majority of its existence. Part of this privilege included an unimpeded journey each year to the James River Fall Line to spawn. There were no fishing charters in those days; the behemoth dominated the seas. The sturgeon weathered two biological extinctions and the arrival of humans, and it thrived on an unending diet of crustaceans and worms — by the 1500s, American Indians were trading tales of Mashe-nomak, a colossal sturgeon that ate everything in his path. With no natural predators and an abundance of prey, the sturgeon was still at the height of its dominance when the English settlers sailed into Jamestown in 1607.
John Smith, for his part, declared that the river contained more sturgeon "than could be devoured by dog or man." When the infamous Starving Time arrived, the settlers turned to the fish for food, and the white meat of the sturgeon helped save the colony. Albert Spells, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services biologist, focuses on the importance of the fish during this time.
"I'm unabashedly biased," says Spells. "If there were to be a national fish, it should be the Atlantic sturgeon. Without sturgeon, there's a good chance we would not be having this conversation in English right now." Spells is referring to the near demise of Jamestown; as the English Colony struggled, other nations greedily eyed the Virginia territory. Of course, the sturgeon saw the hungry colonists through. "We could have caught other fish," Spells jokes, "but we'd have been catching them in French or Spanish."
At the dawn of the 18th century, this tank of a fish seemed invincible. After all, its ancestors existed more than 120 million years ago and survived the Cretaceous Period extinction, and now there were seemingly more sturgeon than people to eat them. Additionally, the sturgeon held an important place in the hearts of many settlers.
Slowly, however, the tide began to turn. No natural force, it seemed, could ever derail the monster.
At the turn of the 19th century, the sturgeon was not in high demand. The fish was considered a nuisance at best, and no Richmond residents hunted it for food. There was no demand for fish eggs among Southern folks, and there were far better fish to fry. In the 1850s, however, immigrants began to arrive from Russia and Eastern Europe. These new settlers were used to catching Atlantic and beluga sturgeon on the Baltic Sea, and they brought with them a knack for cooking and an appetite for caviar. The foundation for business was laid, and sturgeon sometimes found their waterways blocked by the treacherous nets and anchors of homesick travelers, longing for a taste of the motherland.
By 1880, word had gotten out on the sturgeon. The new settlers knew how to smoke the fish just the right way, and the rest of the city clamored for more. Sturgeon now fell victim to the nets of industrial tycoons as well. Hungry for money, the entrepreneurs used drift nets to sweep sturgeon up from their river homes. Crews would set their nets below the boats, float upriver with the tide, and deliver hundreds of fish to factories that could process them immediately. The ships would then sail back downstream and start again. The dangerous tactic left no population to regenerate, and within 20 years, the species was devastated. At the height of the fishery in the mid-1880s, fishermen were hauling in 726,000 pounds a year; by 1904, this number dropped all the way to 163,000 pounds, and in 1920, a measly 23,000 pounds was brought in.
"The fish supported a substantial fishery until 1890, when the numbers really plummeted, and it hasn't really recovered," says Spells. He pauses, and then decides to remove the qualifier from his statement. "It has not recovered. Ever."
Greed alone, of course, could not destroy the sturgeon. Neglect was necessary as well. An unsightly decline in the state of the James River dealt a blow to the fish that was nearly fatal. The sturgeon needs a rocky bottom to reproduce, but sediment pollution from runoff and erosion blanketed choice spawning spots with a layer of silt, an effect doubled by stormwater runoff. Worse still, TNT and dynamite activity, intended to straighten canals around lower James areas such as Turkey Island and Jones Neck, caused dirt and sand to cloud the river still further. Mud settled in rocky basins and over the top of sturgeon eggs. Any remaining adults were nabbed by careless fishermen. It was an apocalyptic scene. By the mid-20th century, the prehistoric fish had become a semi-myth from the distant past, and the only remaining sturgeon in the James River were confused lone rangers tragically navigating the dirty water in solitude.
Brunkow does not mince words when asked about the fish's recovery, and his take on the way it came about does not flatter mankind. "The number one [reason for recovery] is that people have largely forgotten about the sturgeon," he says.
Perhaps most important, the Atlantic sturgeon is a protected endangered species as of 2012. It has been illegal to kill sturgeon in Virginia since 1974, but naturally, state lines do not define the limits of a sturgeon's migration — neighboring Maryland, for example, had no such moratorium until 1985. The fish continued to be killed in states where the species was not protected until 1998, when the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission instituted a moratorium protecting sturgeon along the East Coast.
The days of riverside factories and the systematic extermination of the species were gone. Unfortunately, so were the days of its happy existence.
When the one juvenile sturgeon was found floundering in the lower James in 2010, the JRA and VCU responded by attempting to create an environment more conducive to the ancient fish. In the past three years, these organizations have led the charge through an intensive endeavor known unofficially as the Sturgeon Spawning Reef, an artificial granite structure deposited on the James River floor. Luck Stone Corp. donated 4,400 tons of granite to the JRA, splitting its contribution between 2011 and 2013. Meanwhile, VCU received a similar contribution in 2011 from Vulcan Materials Co. The crushed stone was unloaded at strategic spots near the Presquile National Wildlife Refuge, and there are now three manmade granite reefs in the lower James. Numerous fish, including sturgeon, are drawn there, in part because of its ideal spawning conditions.
"We're looking for sturgeon eggs stuck on the reefs," explains Brunkow. The eggs stick to circular pads placed on the bottom of the reef, which are tied to a line and can be pulled up at the end of spawning season. No sturgeon eggs had been discovered through last fall, although Bill Street, JRA's chief executive officer, maintains that this is no cause for concern. Matt Balazik, a VCU researcher and doctoral candidate in life sciences, and his team have netted males prepared for reproductive activity, as well as females immediately before and after releasing their eggs, which Street calls "conclusive evidence" that the fish are reproducing.
Many sources, including Brunkow and Street, point to Balazik as the leading sturgeon expert. He and his team fish for sturgeon with anchored nets and document their activity. Balazik hauls in a new net of fish every hour, and he and his crew collect the weight, height, and gender of each one. An electronic transmitter, which sends a code to Balazik detailing the location of each fish, is also inserted into the lower stomach. The electronic codes are transformed into a number, and a signal is sent to Balazik when the sturgeon are nearby. Like a good shepherd who knows all of his sheep by name, Balazik can identify every tagged sturgeon in the James River by its numerical code. Rex Springston of the Richmond Times-Dispatch rightfully dubbed him the "Sturgeon Whisperer."
While conducting research, Balazik tries to avoid spawning runs so the fish aren't hurt or interrupted, but sometimes the occasions are unavoidable. He once caught 23 fish in 50 minutes, a number that sounds spectacular but, given that there were more sturgeon than helpers on board to document them, this was a difficult day for testing. It does, however, mean good news for the population. "Go sit [at Anacarrow's Landing] for 30 minutes, and you'll see one," he says of the fish.
Balazik began his career as the Sturgeon Whisperer almost by chance. VCU recruited him in 2007 to conduct age and growth studies on the sturgeon that were being spotted, before the full scale of the comeback was known. One fateful day, Balazik received a call about a 7-foot-long dead sturgeon. "I was expecting a 4-footer," he admits. All the same, he rode out to Presquile National Wildlife Refuge. As it turns out, his path was blocked by an incredible natural sight: fully grown sturgeon leaping, or breaching, out of the calm water and returning with a splash. Balazik says he sat and watched for hours, and called as many people as he could to spread the news. "I actually ran out of gas sitting out there," he recalls. From that point on, he was determined to help bring back the ancient species.
The problem of over-fishing seems to have been managed decisively through federal and state laws, but the work of the average citizen is still important in the sturgeon's recovery. "Sediment is a major pollutant," Brunkow warns. "We've kind of changed the way things are done in the past 20 years. There are a lot of things we try to get local homeowners to do." The JRA released its 2013 report card in October, and revealed that sediment pollution levels have not decreased for the past two decades.
This problem is something all residents can address, he notes. For example, a rain garden planted in the front yard soaks up storm water run-off that would otherwise erode the land and cloud the river water. Various sediment control tactics can have the same positive effect as a rain garden. As it stands now, it can be difficult for some sturgeon to reproduce, as silt and sand cover rocky basins upriver. This silent setback can even land on top of eggs and prevent fertilization of the next generation.
The reward for taking care of the sturgeon is, in the words of river tour guide Capt. Mike Ostrander, a chance to see a "living dinosaur." Sturgeon became so common below the fall line this autumn that Ostrander offered four tours through his Discover the James company for the sole purpose of spotting a sturgeon. The fish has a tendency to leap unannounced and splash magnificently, so sturgeon-watching is a far more exciting endeavor than the name may suggest.
Jerry Gorde, a friend of Ostrander's, accompanied him on one of the tours, a pontoon boat tour which Balazik also helped guide. Gorde saw six leaps during his time on the boat, two of which he called complete "wows." "The first thing that goes through your mind is how large these fish are," says Gorde. "The second is how powerful they must be to spring a 150-pound body out of the water."
Sturgeon breach primarily during spawning time. When males are packed tightly together, they become hyperactive and fling themselves out of the water. Ostrander's tours stop in Dutch Gap Reservoir, a state park south of Richmond, because of its ideal sturgeon-spawning conditions. The reservoir was dug by Union soldiers during the American Civil War in order to maneuver around Confederate artillery, and was then widened again in 1930. As a result of the manmade canal, the reservoir is deeper and rockier than most parts of the river, and thus a much better habitat for sturgeon eggs to grow and develop without being destroyed.
When the sturgeon leaves the water, it often leaps at a 45-degree angle, and river-watchers sometimes get a chance to see a sturgeon several feet out of the air and completely parallel with the water. Other times, the sturgeon will decide to leap vertically, an even stranger sight. On all occasions, though, the sturgeon returns to the water with a massive splash. Holly Smith, a Virginia Aquarium worker who attended three of the tours, was especially impressed with the sturgeon's thrashing descent into the river. "It's a fabulous experience," she says. "It's amazing to see the splash and know the giant fish just caused it."
"Every time you see one, you can't help but yell," says Ostrander. You can hear the excitement and enthusiasm in his voice when he describes the tour. Always the nature enthusiast, Ostrander's awed tones denote respect and reverence. "Everybody would just get connected with the fish, and it was so cool. It's almost like the end of a fireworks show — everybody focused on one thing and oohing and ahhing."
It's a very ancient fireworks show. With the steady recovery, it seems the always-resilient fighter has weathered yet another apocalyptic storm. The days of the dinosaurs are long gone, as are the days of the Colonial period, and for better or for worse, there will likely never be another Martin Hawkins, sturgeon rider.