by John Page Williams
In the spring of 2005, a class of students from Moody Middle School near Richmond boarded the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's 42-foot educational workboat, Chesapeake, for a day's field trip on the James River below Hopewell, Va. As one activity, they fished the boat's trawl net. Culling through the catch, they found many of the usual suspects: white perch, young rockfish, spot-tail shiners, mud shad and white catfish. But they also found something that would have gotten a double-take from even the most unflappable Chesapeake marine biologist--a six-inch young-of-the-year Atlantic sturgeon, the first solid evidence of natural reproduction in any Chesapeake river in decades. It was one of several watershed events over the past 10 years that are telling us these remarkably ancient fish--thought to have been fished to extinction in the Bay 100 years ago-- have more resilience than anyone expected.
Since the early 20th century, when the commercial fishery for Atlantic sturgeon collapsed up and down the East Coast, juvenile and sub-adult sturgeon (up to four feet long) have very occasionally shown up in pound and gill nets, but most scientists have agreed that these were simply nomads from other populations, most likely the Delaware and Hudson rivers. In recent years, however, more and more of the pointy-nose fish have shown up in Chesapeake nets. Now watermen, scientists and conservationists are beginning to think that there just might be a small--very small--spawning population of Atlantic sturgeon again in the Chesapeake. Nobody's breaking out the bubbly just yet, though, because even if the fish are indeed reestablishing themselves in the Bay, it will be many, many years before we see anything close to the 10- and 12-foot monsters that George Washington's shad crews were pulling out of the Potomac River at Mount Vernon in the 1760s.
Atlantic sturgeon are ancient, primitive, bony fish whose skeletons still contain high percentages of cartilage. Their family has been on Earth since the age of dinosaurs, several hundred million years ago. How does a basic fish "design" endure so long? The experts have no simple answer to that question, but it's safe to say the fish's wide-ranging diet and adaptability to different habitats has something to do with it. Around the northern hemisphere, where all current sturgeon species live, the fish grub in the bottom of lakes, rivers and the oceans' continental shelves, feeding on insect larvae, worms, crustaceans, mollusks and small fish. Another factor is a powerful tail and body that allows long migrations to search out fertile food sources in a wide range of habitats, then return to the fishes' natal rivers periodically to spawn. They have nostrils to smell and chin barbels to taste and feel as they search for food, coupled with protruding mouths beneath their skulls, with which they can vacuum up food. They also have the ability to adjust to a variety of depths and gulp air with their swim bladders, and to adjust physiologically to a wide range of salinities that range from fresh to seawater.
Sturgeon grow tough, leathery hides with five rows of bony armor plates, called scutes. The combination of armor and size (they grow quickly, as much as three feet in the first five or six years) cuts down on the number of natural predators. Their rate of growth slows after that initial period, but they keep growing for a long time--up to 100 years--and have been known to reach lengths of 18 feet. At that length, they'd weigh a ton or more. All members of the family mature slowly, and individual females do not spawn every year, but when they do, they release large numbers of eggs. Up until 400 years ago, time really didn't matter to sturgeon, as they went deliberately about their lives, feeding, growing and reproducing slowly but steadily. Around the world, people learned to catch sturgeon, which were prized for their enormous yield of meat, but with primitive fishing methods they could never harvest the fish faster than the species could replenish itself.
By 1607, the natives on the Chesapeake's rivers had learned to catch sturgeon where they concentrated in the spawning rivers, trapping them in weirs and tail-roping them to trees to let them tire themselves out. The English at Jamestown, familiar with European sturgeon, were quick to adopt the Indians' techniques, and sturgeon became one of their staples--at least during the spring and summer. When the fish migrated out of the James River in the fall, it meant lean times for the English. Despite having deliberately included a fisherman and fishmonger in their numbers, they never learned to catch anything but sturgeon and oysters (the latter by simply plucking them from reefs that were exposed at low tide). Without the big fish in the spring and summer, though, they would have been even worse off.
Over the decades and centuries that followed, the English gradually learned to fish as effectively as the Indians--and then to improve upon those methods with higher-tech gear, which ranged from iron fish hooks and linen lines to seaworthy small boats. By the 1760s, when a gentleman farmer named George Washington was sending fishing crews into the Potomac River, the gear of choice was an 800-yard haul seine--set by a six-man crew in a rowing skiff and hauled in by draft horses. During the spring spawning runs, Washington's crews caught hundreds of thousands of shad, herring and rockfish, but the fish that always fascinated him were the 8- to 12-foot Atlantic sturgeon that turned up in his nets periodically. His money fish were herring and shad, but a sizable sturgeon would feed a lot of people at Mount Vernon.
With the coming of the railroads and steamboats in the 18th century, time became the slow-growing fish's worst enemy. Sturgeon became big business. In the New York markets, fish from the Hudson were called "Albany Beef." Railroads and steamboats allowed Delaware River and Chesapeake fishermen to ship sturgeon to Richmond, Washington, D.C., Wilmington, Del., Philadelphia and New York. They also allowed the fishermen to order special gill nets and haul seines from manufacturers, and seaworthy 28- to 34-foot cedar-on-oak "sturgeon skiffs" with oars and sails from boatbuilders in Philadelphia.
By the late 19th century, most sturgeon fishing operations included expert preparation of caviar, which put a high premium on large, ripe females. Chesapeake fishermen shipped caviar and sturgeon (some called it "Charles City Bacon") up and down the East Coast in huge quantities. The fishery was dangerous, hard work--because spring weather could be so fickle on the big rivers, and the fish were so large and strong, sometimes leaping clear out of the water during spawning. The risks were worthwhile, though, because of the good prices fetched, by the caviar in particular. When the harvests began to decline--no doubt because fish were being caught faster than they could reproduce--the waterman responded by simply using longer nets.
By 1890 or so, they noticed that the typical size of sturgeon, historically 10 to 12 feet, was now more like 8 to 10 feet, so they began ordering nets with 10-inch mesh, instead of 13-inch. But before long the average fish size was closer to six feet. At the time, of course, nobody knew that females didn't reach sexual maturity until they were about six feet. So, without realizing it, they had now begun to eat the seed corn--that is, they were harvesting the last of the spawning stock. At the turn of the 20th century, the inevitable happened: The sturgeon population crashed, up and down the coast, and watermen turned to other species. In 1926, the last sturgeon fishing operation on the Potomac closed down. Gradually, most people forgot about the fish.
Periodically over the next several decades, the occasional small sturgeon would show up in a pound net or a gill net, but they were very few and very far between. In the spring of 1970, Potomac waterman Lewis Harley of Hallowing Point, Va., caught a 170-pound sturgeon in a gill net meant for rockfish. That was the last large sturgeon sold legally in the Chesapeake. Maryland and Virginia closed commercial sturgeon fishing in the mid-1970s, but of course the figurative horse was already out of the barn. Scientists were reasonably certain that the spawning stock in all of the Chesapeake's rivers was extinct, and that the few sturgeon that turned up here were wanderers from other river systems. They also believed that the related short-nose sturgeon, also native to East Coast rivers, was completely extinct on the Chesapeake. It was--and is--officially listed federally as endangered, while the Atlantic sturgeon is listed as threatened.
Fast forward to the early 1990s when the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) and Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF), after hearing of more than a few sturgeon sightings by watermen, teamed up and offered a $100 bounty to anyone who turned over a live specimen to USFWS biologists for tagging, measurement and release. Suddenly the Chesapeake had more sturgeon than anyone had realized, including several short-nose at the head of the Bay. Most were two- to four-foot juveniles and sub-adults.
Roy Fenwick, a versatile and veteran waterman who fishes the Potomac out of Rosier Creek, near Colonial Beach, Va., turned in several. Fenwick is old enough to have heard stories from the old days and seen a reasonable number of sturgeon himself. He's delighted to have participated in the program and made a little money from it.
Funding for the sturgeon bounty dried up in 1998, but recently USFWS found enough funding to at least temporarily reinstate the bounty--now $50 per live fish. Meanwhile, biologists at the University of Maryland's Horn Point Laboratory and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) have begun a small hatchery program--using sturgeon bred from the Hudson River strain, and stocking them in the Eastern Shore's Nanticoke River. They also began holding male sturgeons against the day that someone found a mature Chesapeake female for them to mate with.
The person who has emerged as the lead Chesapeake sturgeon guru is Albert Spells, a USFWS habitat biologist who works as Virginia Fisheries Coordinator out of the Harrison Lake National Fish Hatchery on the James River in Charles City, Va. He has drawn sturgeon fanciers together in a loose information-sharing, partnership-promoting group that also includes the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, the James River Association, the Horn Point Laboratory, Maryland's DNR, local watermen and CBF.
Since then, Ken Slazyk and Eric Weigandt of CBF's James River Education Program have continued to catch a few two- to four-foot sturgeon each year during field trips. Meanwhile, waterman Kelly Place of Williamsburg has teamed up with some other fishermen and VIMS to establish a research gill-net fishery for sturgeon on Virginia's big Western Shore rivers from the James up to the Potomac. Over the past two years, participants have caught over a thousand fish, tagged them (in some cases with radio tags) and released them.
Now that the presence of sturgeon in the Chesapeake is established, this kind of catch-tag-release program can yield vital information about fish numbers, sizes, habitat preferences and movements. USFWS and the James River Association have put together a restoration plan for James River sturgeon that will build directly on that information.
The Horn Point Laboratory has developed a sturgeon adoption program for us lay people to help support their long-term breeding program (www.adoptasturgeon.org). This spring, its male fish got their first test. A Tilghman Island waterman caught a mature 170-pound female Atlantic sturgeon in a pound net in April and kept her alive. The University of Maryland scientists picked her up, took her back to the lab and induced spawning, mixing her eggs with milt from their captive males. Unfortunately, the spawn was not successful, but the biologists learned a lot and hope they can make it work next time. They also kept the female, in the hope that when she spawns again a couple of years hence, they and their male fish will be ready to help her hatch some viable young fish.
Fall is a slow time for sturgeon in the Chesapeake, but spring 2008 should bring more news of the Chesapeake's giants. As Albert Spells remarked recently in an e-mail to his group, these are "exciting times for sturgeon, even on shoestring budgets!"