Kayakers, canoers, tubers, fishermen, and other river rats, this April through June be on the lookout for soundings from the Atlantic and Short nose sturgeon during your adventures along the Rappahannock River. A sounding is when a sturgeon jumps out of the water on their journey upstream. These fish are anadromous, meaning that as an adult they spend their time in the ocean and they swim upstream to spawn and lay their eggs. According to the Chesapeake Bay Program, juveniles can stay in their natal (home) stream up to six years before making their way to the ocean.
Sturgeon are the largest fish species native to the Chesapeake Bay and have been found in the fossil record for over 85 million years. Sturgeon have overcome many obstacles, but the current question is, Can they overcome human destruction? Historically, the Chesapeake Bay was known to house hundreds of Atlantic and Short nose sturgeon. It was once said you could cross the James River on the backs of sturgeon. Today sturgeon face many threats. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), those threats include being caught as by-catch, dams blocking spawning grounds, tidal turbines, boat strikes, dredging, and pollution, but their population saw the greatest decline in the mid-to-late 1900s from over harvesting by commercial fishermen. Sturgeon are highly sensitive to low dissolved oxygen and other poor water quality conditions.
According to Matthew Fisher, a Marine Researcher at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), in 2015 there were three sturgeon detected by receivers set up by VIMS in the Rappahannock River. Each sturgeon was tagged by a different research team, including VIMS, Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), and the U.S. Navy, showing that the sturgeon’s return must be a group effort. Fisher said, “VIMS has eight receivers deployed from the mouth of the Rappahannock to the Four Winds community at river kilometer 129.”
Researchers are still gathering data by tagging sturgeon throughout the Chesapeake Bay. Matt Balazik, a Ph.D. student at VCU, said, “I tagged an adult male last fall that was ready to spawn,” about his fall 2015 tagging experience along the Rappahannock River.
You can help through citizen science in two ways. The first way is, if you see a sounding (sometimes called a breaching), report it to VIMS at www.vims.edu/research/topics/sturgeon/breaching/index.php. The second way is to report a dead sturgeon to the VCU Center for Environmental Studies at (804) 828-7202.
Taylor McConnell is a biology and environmental studies graduate from UMW and now an environmental educator with FOR.