Rivers in real time

Rice Center sturgeon research educates high school students about the James River

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It’s rare we have the opportunity to catch a glimpse into the prehistoric past, but the Atlantic sturgeon, a fish that once swam with the dinosaurs, offers just that. It also played an important role in Virginia’s history when it served as a critical food source for the early European colonists in Jamestown, helping them stave off starvation during the grim winter of 1609-1610, also known as “The Starving Time.”

And now, moving forward, the giant prehistoric fish promises to help paint a broader picture of how many elements of the environment connect.

Read more:
VCU Receives NOAA Grant to Study Biology and Ecology of Iconic Fish

First, however,  researchers need to better understand the biology of the fish itself and to partner with others to help restore the population, which has declined significantly in the past 100 years.

In 2012, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration added the Atlantic sturgeon to its Endangered Species List.  A mix of overharvesting and the construction of dams that altered its habitat are to blame in part for the decline. Other threats to sturgeon include ship strikes and nets intended for other fish.

For the past several years, researchers at the Virginia Commonwealth University Rice Center and the VCU Center for Environmental Studies have investigated the biology and life history of the giant prehistoric fish with the goal of protecting and restoring it to the coastal rivers of Virginia.

Another important aspect of the sturgeon restoration work at VCU is involving the community that surrounds the Rice Center to build awareness of the fish.

Three years ago, Anne Wright, assistant professor of biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences and coordinator of VCU Life Sciences Outreach Education, launched a project called “Rivers in Real Time: Migration,” to engage high school students in the James River watershed through a hands-on learning experience at the VCU Rice Center. The program, now in its third and final year, was made possible through a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) B’WET Program (Bay Watershed Education and Training).

A student records data tracking sturgeon movements.
A student records data tracking sturgeon movements.

The ‘Ping’: Tracking sturgeon migration

Through “Rivers in Real Time: Migration,” VCU faculty and student researchers, together with high school teachers and students, have tracked the migratory movement of sturgeon and shad in the James River. The project has involved testing cutting-edge telemetry equipment developed by VEMCO, a Canadian company known for acoustic telemetry.

Wright collaborated with Matt Balazik, a doctoral candidate in VCU Life Sciences, who has been leading efforts at VCU to investigate the biology and life history of sturgeon. Balazik catches sturgeon and surgically implants  the fish with an acoustic transmitter tag, before releasing them back into the James River.

Through the NOAA grant, VCU Outreach Education purchased two real-time receivers, which have enabled them to keep close tabs on the movement of the fish. The acoustic transmitter tags, which are implanted on the fish, work by sending out a “ping.” When a fish swims by a receiver, the ping from the acoustic transmitter tag is recorded. For researchers, that ping represents a data point – and the ability to follow the movement of the great fish. An email is sent to the team indicating that the sturgeon has come into the range of the receiver, along with additional data that include the date and depth of the fish. Balazik has tagged a total of 26 sturgeons for Wright’s project.

“With this grant, we were able to pioneer the use of this real-time satellite telemetry technology,” said Wright.

According to Wright, the first real-time receiver the VCU team deployed was a prototype VEMCO VR4 Global Satellite receiver that transmits real-time locational data from acoustic tags placed on or implanted into the sturgeon.

“This was the first receiver of its type to be deployed in North America,” Wright said. “The second prototype global receiver, a VR2C, was re-configured by NOAA and integrated into its Jamestown buoy that is part of the Chesapeake Bay Interpretative Buoy System. It was the first receiver of its type to be deployed anywhere in the world.”

It took more than a year to get both receivers placed and functional in the river. Once they were operational, the information was transmitted into the high school biology and environmental ecology classes participating in the outreach program.

Balazik uses the data from the real-time receivers for his ongoing sturgeon research. Balazik and Wright have access to a NOAA website where the buoy data is recorded, so that it eventually can be shared with researchers across the country. Additionally, Wright said in several instances the real-time receivers helped alert Balazik to get to his boat and search for the fish.

Wright and VCU graduate students visit high school classrooms to work with the students to further analyze the sturgeon data. Graphs help compare where the fish are detected with the environmental data pulled from the Chesapeake Bay Interpretative Buoy System (CBIBS) website.

The VCU tags will last another five to eight years, and VCU has permission to keep one of the real-time receivers located close to the VCU Rice Center.

Students investigate river life.
Students investigate river life.

Hands-on learning

Through the ”Rivers in Real Time: Migration” initiative and a series of sturgeon workshops, Wright has reached out to the next generation of biologists and conservationists, educating young students about the living world around them.

The students take a field trip  to the VCU Rice Center to participate in a training session on how to use CBIBS, Google Earth and Excel. They test water quality parameters at the VCU Rice Center pier and discuss how the results of different human activities can affect life in the river. Students pull a seine to capture fish and other organisms to learn about the things that live in their “backyard.”

Students also participate in boat trips with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation from the Jordan Point Marina near Hopewell, where they have the opportunity to explore the James River and view where the real-time receiver is placed. They see it, discuss it and learn about its purpose.

“The project has helped raise awareness of the sturgeon among school-age kids,” Wright said.

Wright, who has worked with schools located near the Rice Center, such as in the districts of Hopewell, Prince George and Charles City, said the visits are eye-openers for students. Some, she said, have never been on a boat or on the James River. They gain an appreciation for the intricate details of life in and around the river.

 “It’s a funny thing about kids – they are so plugged into the electronics and all of that for everything, but they really respond when you get them outside, when they see organisms that live in the James River,” Wright said. “When they come out to the Rice Center, we go to the river and every now and then we’ll catch a big crab, or a catfish – and a lot of smaller things – and they are knocked out by them.”

Someone who understands the importance of having young students experience research in the field is Vicki O. Cain, chairperson of the science department at Prince George High School. Cain, who teaches biology and ecology, began working with Wright and the VCU Rice Center prior to the  sturgeon grant program. For instance, she had visited the Rice Center and completed a variety of water-testing projects and other exploration of river life with students in her efforts to emphasize environmental conservation and the critical role of research.

Cain has been involved with the sturgeon project from the beginning. She said it has proven to be an effective teaching tool.

“My students were able to understand the significance of the sturgeon as an important species in our river system as well as the need to protect their migration waters for breeding and raising young,” Cain said.

Cain said that she requires her students to conduct their own research projects during the course of the year. Therefore, it is important they know how to accurately collect and analyze data. Her students observed and then participated in the process of data collection and the analysis of data collected for the sturgeon project.

“This process could be applied to their own research project,” Cain said. “They were also able to observe the significance of data collected in a local ecosystem which is important to their understanding of the environment around them.”

Cain also made discoveries  through the program. Not only did the activities help expand her understanding of local ecosystem issues, but she was involved with outdoor experiences with her students and other teachers in the area.

“We had several great days on the James River which included firsthand experiences with many varieties of wildlife,” she said. “These outdoor and field studies enhanced the learning experiences and made students more aware of their own local ecosystem. This made it easier to incorporate SOL requirements for studies of local flora and fauna.”

“All aspects of this program, including the teacher training and the student experiences, made our biology class come to life.  It was also a benefit to be working with knowledgeable and experienced people in the field.”

“Our students and teachers had a very positive and beneficial experience over the last three years. We hope to continue teaching some aspects of the sturgeon project in years to come and hope that we can fund some of the field experiences for our students in the future.”

Although the project is wrapping up, Wright will continue the outreach and collaboration with area high schools and other agencies. In partnership with NOAA, Game and Inland Fisheries and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, Wright will offer a sturgeon workshop in the fall, reaching out to schools throughout the tidal James River to the Chesapeake Bay. The workshop will bring  a NOAA educator to introduce teachers to the sturgeon curriculum called SCUTES – Students Collaborating to Undertake Tracking Efforts for Sturgeon.

Several high school teachers already use maps from the kit to illustrate the range the sturgeon moves from Florida to Nova Scotia. As students receive emails, they put a dot on the map to follow the movement of the fish.

VCU researchers on board a boat along the James River in search of Atlantic sturgeon.
VCU researchers on board a boat along the James River in search of Atlantic sturgeon.

Sturgeon on social media

Recently, Wright launched the James River Sturgeon Facebook page to build awareness and let the community know about the work taking place. Wright hopes that the high school students will watch where their fish have traveled.

“It has turned out that people from across the country have been watching them, too, including sturgeon groups such as the St. Claire Detroit River Sturgeon for Tomorrow, which was started by a group of fisherman to keep sturgeon fishery healthy and sustainable,” Wright said.

With the knowledge of the sturgeon growing and spreading, the hope is that those numbers translate into population growth and awareness of this giant prehistoric fish.

Stay up to date on the James River Sturgeon initiative via Facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/JamesRiverSturgeon.

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