October 5, 2013
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Those docile monsters called Atlantic sturgeons are again prowling the James River in downtown Richmond.
An electronic monitor is showing that at least eight 5Â½- to 6 Â½-foot fish have been milling around the Mayo Bridge area, apparently preparing to spawn, since at least late August.
"Now is the prime season" to find sturgeons in the James, said Matt Balazik, a Virginia Commonwealth University sturgeon researcher.
In recent years, numerous people have seen the big fish leaping from the James around Hopewell in late summer and early fall. But several sightings of estimated 6- and 7-footers by the Mayo Bridge's southern end caused a local sensation in late September 2012.
Sturgeons are toothless bottom-feeders that can top 10 feet in length. They fed so many hungry settlers in the early 1600s that they have been dubbed "the fish that saved Jamestown."
Sturgeons once abounded in the James, but they were fished nearly to extinction for their caviar at the turn of the 20th century.
In the 1800s, fishermen reportedly tied huge sturgeons to the Mayo Bridge before selling them.
It appears that a small population still breeds in the James in the spring and fall, but no one knows precisely where.
If scientists can find where sturgeons reproduce, regulators could protect those places and perhaps help the unusual fish make a comeback.
One of those spawning spots might be around the Mayo Bridge.
Water moves quickly there from the falls just upriver, and that helps put oxygen, which sturgeon eggs need, in the water. The bottom is rocky there, forming a good surface to which eggs can stick. And the swift water sweeps away mud that can smother eggs.
"It is the perfect spawning area, at the fall line," said Balazik, who is in his early 30s and sports a sturgeon tattoo on his right forearm.
After last year's Mayo Bridge sightings, Balazik snorkeled around that area looking for evidence of spawning, such as eggs, but he didn't find it.
Anticipating the fishes' return this year, Balazik submerged an electronic receiver in the James near the bridge.
"I put that receiver out on Aug. 20," he said, "and there were already fish up there."
About 140 sturgeons in the James carry transmitters Balazik has implanted in recent years. The receiver near the bridge, along with dozens more downriver, record the date and time a sturgeon passes, giving Balazik a sense of their movements.
Sturgeons that Balazik has caught and released for his research include an 8-foot, 220-pounder netted Sept. 6. A year ago, he got a monster alongside his boat that was 9 feet long and estimated to weigh nearly 300 pounds. He found both fish near Hopewell.
People are free to look for sturgeons from the Mayo Bridge, also called the 14th Street Bridge. Some fish could be there into early October.
The chances of seeing one are long, however, because summer rains have made the river murkier than last September.
Balazik suggested people not try to swim with the sturgeons. They are an endangered species, so harassing them could be a federal offense.
And even though sturgeons are not aggressive, they are armored with sharp, ridged, bony plates called scutes.
"If one turns the wrong way and hits you, believe me they will cut you," Balazik said. "I've got scars all over my arms."