Caviar Comeback: Sturgeon in the James

Dec 4, 2018

Since colonial times, American fishermen have treasured the Atlantic sturgeon – a source of meat, oil and caviar they could export to Europe.  Many of these fish would leave the ocean each spring or fall to spawn in the James, Delaware and Hudson Rivers, but as demand for their salt-cured eggs grew, the population of sturgeon fell until – in 1974 – Virginia became the first state to ban catching them. 

Now, this source of caviar is making a comeback, and scientists are hoping to help.

Giant sturgeon have returned to the James River, but will their offspring survive?
Credit VCU Rice Rivers Center

It’s a cool day in November – rain pouring down on the dock of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Rice Rivers Center near Charles City – and research ecologist Matt Balazik is preparing to search for baby sturgeon.

“Sturgeon are a pre-historic fish. People call them swimming dinosaurs," he says. "They actually have bones on their outside, so they’re pretty much like an armor-plated fish, so they’ve been around for tens of millions of years.” 

VCU scientists are studying baby sturgeon in the James.
Credit VCU Rice Rivers Center

Balazik grew up in this area, and he knew there were no sturgeon left in the James:

“Caviar being in high demand, and people wanted a lot of it, so they were targeting all the females.  They were wiping the females out, and there were no females left to reproduce, so populations crashed," he explains.

Then, in 2008, he and other scientists started seeing sturgeon again. His brother Martin was thrilled by the news.

Matt Balazik prepares to search for baby sturgeon.
Credit Sandy Hausman

"It was just something I had never seen before, and I thought I’d seen everything in the river," he says. "This is something that man actually did a lot of damage to.  The river was polluted when I was a kid. To see everything come back like that, to me it’s something to see."

History suggests sturgeon can live more than a hundred years and grow into sea monsters.  "The records are like 800 pounds.  Of course those were a long time ago," Balazik admits, "but over time they could get that big again if we let them survive that long."

For the last decade they’ve been catching adults, removing them from the water for brief study at great personal risk.  Because of their armor and their size, sturgeon can do serious harm to the human body as they thrash around.

And this year – for the first time -- Balazik is finding something safer. With his wife, Thiwa, at the helm and Martin by his side, he heads out each night to drag a net along the bottom of the river, where sturgeon hang out.  The first attempt yields dozens of catfish, flounder, and as they toss those overboard, a surprise: “Uh, there’s a little sturgeon right there. There he is!  There’s your baby sturgeon right there!  He’s perfect.”

The research team puts it in a bucket where they can measure the fish and take a tiny snip of its fin for genetic study.

“They spawn where they were spawned, so there’s unique genetic signatures to each population. Ready Thiwa?  Yep!  91 and 107.   We’ll get the vial ready, take my glove off. So this is the first time we’ve captured this fish, because the fin isn’t cut yet.  We just take a teeny little corner right there, put him right in, let him swim around.  Put the fin clip into the vial,”

This work could give scientists a better understanding sturgeon, why no babies were caught over the last eight years and why this year has seen so many.  It might be, for example, that heavy rains have washed sediment along the river bottom into the Chesapeake, creating a cleaner space for fish eggs to hatch.  If, at this time next year, he’s seeing a lot of one-year-old sturgeon, Balazik says, he’ll break out the champagne.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.