The Bulletin

Some Virginia sturgeon traveled over 500 miles last year

By: - May 3, 2022 12:03 am

Atlantic sturgeon. (Ryan Hagerty / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

It’s not just the Proclaimers who want to go 500 miles to end up at your door. A handful of Atlantic sturgeon in the James River are also willing and eager to cover large distances for their heart’s desire.

Data collected by Virginia Commonwealth University’s Rice Rivers Center, an environmental field research station in Charles City County, shows that these endangered fish are traveling far greater distances than might be expected, covering between 212 and 841 kilometers — equal to about 132 to 522 miles — during spawning runs in the James River last year.

“I knew they at least went 100-some kilometers to get up to spawning habitat, but I didn’t realize how much some of them had moved back and forth,” said Matt Balazik, an assistant professor at Rice Rivers.

On average, the 25 Atlantic sturgeon tracked by scientists traveled 570 kilometers, or 354 miles. 

Sturgeon travel distances tracked by VCU’s Rice Rivers Center. (VCu)

According to VCU, the farthest distances were clocked by sturgeon swimming upriver during the fall spawning season, when the fish return to their rivers where they spent their childhood years to mate. Sturgeon didn’t tend to go as far during the spring spawn. 

“Some will be halfway out of the river and a late female will come up, and the males will go all the way back up,” said Balazik. 

What the sturgeon are looking for is not only females, but a spawning site with conditions favorable to juvenile survival.

“You’re not going to do this much investment and be lazy the last few days,” said Balazik. “You have to do what’s going to increase the chances of your young to survive.”

A relic of prehistoric times, Atlantic sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrinchus) once roamed Virginia’s rivers in great numbers and fueled what was called the “Black Gold Rush,” a late 19th-century craze for caviar that eventually led to the species’ collapse. Virginia placed a moratorium on sturgeon fishing in its waters in 1974, and the entire Atlantic Coast fishery was closed in 1998. 

Scientists today recognize five distinct populations of Atlantic sturgeon, one of which is associated with the Chesapeake Bay. All five are listed as threatened or endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act. 

Restoration work has led to the species slowly returning to various East Coast waterways, but juveniles have remained especially elusive in Virginia rivers, including the James. Researchers aren’t exactly sure why but have hypothesized a combination of factors, from predation by non-native blue catfish to water pollution to mortality from industrial water intakes, are suppressing the youth numbers. 

The travel distance numbers collected by Rice Rivers are part of a much larger set of data researchers have been amassing on sturgeon in the James River through the use of tracking technology.

“All in all it’s just a fun little factoid,” said Balazik.

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is the Mercury's environment and energy reporter, covering everything from utility regulation to sea level rise. Originally from McLean, she has spent over a decade in journalism and academic publishing and previously worked as a staff reporter for Chesapeake Bay Journal, the Progress-Index and the Caroline Progress. She is the recipient of a first place award for explanatory reporting from the Society of Environmental Journalists and has twice been honored by the Virginia Press Association as "Best in Show" for online writing. She was chosen for the 2020 cohort of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and is a graduate of the College of William and Mary. Contact her at [email protected]

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