From the falls of Richmond to the expansive estuary near Jamestown, an ancient creature is returning to its spawning habitat in the James River. It is continuing a spring migration that has taken place for eons. And it is showing signs of an endangered species attempting to make a comeback.
Atlantic sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrinchus oxyrinchus) have lived since the age of the dinosaurs, making them one of the oldest groups of fish in existence today. They have been around so long that they have earned the nickname “living fossils.” Yet the arrival and industrialization of mankind proved to be more than the sturgeon could contend with. Overfishing and loss of habitat have sent the Atlantic sturgeon population to the brink of collapse.
But in the James River the story of Atlantic sturgeon has taken a remarkable turn in recent years. It is clear that sturgeon are not only in the James, but that they’re leaping out of the water during their spawning season – a behavior known as “breaching.” With a little luck, a visit to some portions of the James River can offer an unforgettable experience to the onlooker.
A breach may last less than a second, and if you’re not fast enough you may see only a splash. To increase your odds, here are some of the top places to spot a sturgeon this spring.
1. Presquile National Wildlife Refuge – In recent years, more sturgeon have been caught and tagged here for research than anywhere else in the James. The river near Presquile is accessible by boat, and on a good day it is not uncommon to see 2-3 sturgeon breaching in a half hour period. This is also the site of the James River Association’s experimental “spawning reef,” which was designed to encourage spawning and to mimic the hard rocky bottom where sturgeon prefer to lay their eggs.
2. City Point, Hopewell – Just downstream from Presquile, the James River widens tremendously where it meets the Appomattox River. City Point Waterfront Park overlooks the area where the two Rivers meet, offering visitors a scenic view from the water’s edge and an excellent vantage point for any breaching sturgeon. You are probably just as likely to see a breach here as you are near Presquile.
3. The Fall Line at Richmond – For those who like to rock hop and explore the riffles and pools around Richmond, the spring season can offer an additional bonus. Researchers believe the rocky bottom and swift moving water found at the Fall Line is the preferred spawning habitat for sturgeon. You are unlikely to see a breach here, but if you are lucky you can spot one of these giant fish through the water column.
4. Deep Water Terminal – Accessible by boat and right on the edge of Richmond, the James near Deep Water Terminal is great for sturgeon seeking city dwellers. The fairly narrow channel here can mean that when a sturgeon does breach, it is hard to miss.
The Atlantic sturgeon population in the James River is far from a complete recovery. Our continued actions to protect the species are critical to bringing them back – and are a constant reminder of how extraordinarily lucky we are to have them in the James River.
Sturgeon illustration: Duane Rave, USFWS