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Rice Rivers researchers locate two juvenile Atlantic sturgeon

Fish are first juveniles caught, tagged during decade-long project studying ancient endangered species

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Matthew Balazik, Ph.D., holds a juvenile Atlantic sturgeon.
Photos by Ron Lopez.

When Matthew Balazik, Ph.D., told colleagues he planned to sample fish from the James River right before an important presentation at the Rice Rivers Center, they pressed him to be back on time.

Cutting his trip short, he set his nets to find fish closer to the center. There, Balazik found something he has spent the last decade searching for: a juvenile Atlantic sturgeon.

“I was pulling the net over the side of the boat. I went down to grab it, thinking it was a blue catfish,” he said.  “Once I saw what it was I just stood there and stared at it for probably 10 seconds.”

In a case of lightning striking twice, the next day Balazik found a second juvenile Atlantic sturgeon. These are the first juvenile of that species found in the James in more than a decade. The discovery lends hope to Rice Rivers researchers studying this endangered species with support from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

This is a whole new chapter in the sturgeon story here.

“This is a whole new chapter in the sturgeon story here, a completely blank canvas that is just ready to be written,” Balazik said. 

The ancient fish was once plentiful, but was heavily fished for meat and caviar from the days of the Jamestown Colony until the 20th century. The Atlantic sturgeon was listed as an endangered species in 2012.

“These two captures are important as proof that Atlantic sturgeon spawned successfully in the James as recently as 2015 and that the river still has viable nursery habitat for young fish," said Greg Garman, Ph.D., Rice Rivers Center director.

After the stun wore off, Balazik scooped up the little fish and placed it into a 10-foot-long livewell tank on the boat. The fish was “swimming laps like no big deal,” he said. Balazik tagged the fish with a tracking transmitter.

When Balazik returned to give his presentation to the Society for Ecological Restoration, his wife stayed with the fish. He announced the fresh catch and invited attendees to see it. The fish was then released back to the river, where a system of telemetry receivers are tracking it.

“I’ve caught 200,000 fish, and not one has been a juvenile Atlantic sturgeon,” said Balazik, who earned his master’s and doctoral degrees on this project, and presently serves as research faculty with the center. “We’ve caught about 600 different adults. We’ve focused a lot on adults since we can find adults, but we’ve been looking for juveniles this whole time.”

That imbalance between adult fish and juveniles was concerning, because it indicated there may be issues preventing reproduction at a rate to sustain the fish population. Sturgeon return to spawn in the Chesapeake Bay tributaries before spending most of their adult lives in the ocean.

When he returned to fish the James River the next day, Balazik was surprised to pull in a different juvenile Atlantic sturgeon from the water. That fish was also tagged and released.

The first juvenile Atlantic sturgeon is released.
The first juvenile Atlantic sturgeon is released.

“There’s no data on these fish because so few have been caught throughout the years,” he said. “That’s why I’m so excited to come back and sample some more.”

The first fish was 16 inches long and weighed 18.5 ounces, and the second just shy of 16 inches and 13.5 ounces. By comparison, mature females are typically 132 pounds, and males 100 pounds. VCU’s longest fish was 10 feet long.

“After 10 years of sampling multiple times a year, fishing 12 hours a day, sometimes five days a week, finding that one gives you a little spark,” Balazik said.

 

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