Blue Ridge Naturalist: A Rare Opportunity to View a Rare Fish: Atlantic Sturgeon in the James River


© Marlene A. Condon

Researchers Matt Balazik (at left) and Joel Savedge gently return to the James River the last of 23 sturgeon they netted for tagging on September 19, 2013.  (Courtesy of Holly Smith)
Researchers Matt Balazik (at left) and Joel Savedge gently return to the James River the last of 23 sturgeon they netted for tagging on September 19, 2013. (Courtesy of Holly Smith)

The Atlantic Sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrhynchus) is the largest and longest- lived aquatic organism in the Atlantic rivers of North America. Extirpated in most of its historical range along the eastern seaboard, this rare fish still visits the James River in Virginia.

And luckily for Virginians who want a chance to actually see one or more Atlantic Sturgeon, Captain Mike Ostrander, of Discover the James tours, offers boat trips to provide this unique opportunity. Information on dates and costs can be found at

Sturgeon have been on the planet for over 120 million years, appearing in the fossil record when dinosaurs roamed the Earth. They continued to exist well beyond the era of the dinosaurs into the present day, but only just barely.

Beginning in the 1700s, following the arrival of Europeans on this continent and their discovery of the economic value of these fish, sturgeon populations started to plummet. The folks in Jamestown harvested sturgeon to sell for a profit and soon these fish were being harvested in other fisheries along the Atlantic coast.  It’s been said that only lobsters brought in more profit.

In colonial times, sturgeon could live to 100 years of age, reach eight feet in length, and weigh up to 300 pounds. They were harvested for food, especially their eggs that were used for caviar, an item that is still considered a luxury. In 2012, this “delicacy,” which is eaten as a spread, sold for $2,500 per pound.

Unfortunately, most people who eat caviar probably have no idea that the harvesting of eggs (known as “roe”) is usually a terribly inhumane procedure. The female fish may be killed outright, but more often she is subjected to surgery without benefit of anesthesia or pain-killing drugs in order to keep her producing eggs.

Commercial fish farmers often perform a C-section (surgery) to extract the eggs, which is so extremely painful for the fish that at least some countries, thank goodness, ban this method of extracting roe.

Other farmers employ a process called “stripping,” which involves making a small incision along the uro-genital muscle when the fish’s eggs are ready to be retrieved.  This is apparently considered the most humane approach, but it’s obviously still painful and stressful for the fish.

In the 19th century, seven million pounds of sturgeon meat was being exported per year from the United States. Within a matter of years, only 22,000 pounds was being exported. However, almost up to the 20th century, most major river systems from Canada to Florida still contained populations of Atlantic Sturgeon.

Sadly, due to overfishing and pollution of the waterways, sturgeon have disappeared from some rivers along our east coast and today survive only in low numbers where they have managed to hold on. Spawning populations (those in which males and females get together to reproduce) are very rare, but in Virginia small populations are still coming up the James River and the York River to try to perpetuate the species.

You have a wonderful likelihood of seeing the males in the James River by taking a Discover the James tour in August or September with Captain Mike. My hubby and I took one of these tours last year, and I would say it was far better than most of the whale-watching tours that I have been on.

Whales are so large that even when they breach (throw themselves up and out of the water), you only get to see a small part of the body and thus really don’t often get much of an image of what the animal actually looks like.  A sturgeon, on the other hand, completely jumps out of the water so that you can actually glimpse the entire creature.  And at five feet long, it’s large enough to be easy to see, even from a distance.

Additionally, while sightings are not guaranteed for either whale or sturgeon watching, our experience suggests that you are far more likely to see several sturgeon than you are to even get one good look at a whale. I saw more sturgeon come up out of the water on just one trip than I have seen whales after taking many trips.

The Atlantic Sturgeon is an anadromous fish, which means that it spends most of its life at sea and only enters fresh water to reproduce. In most waterways, these fish swim upriver only in the spring, but here in Virginia, we have a population that also makes a late-summer-into-fall run up the James from the Chesapeake Bay. Scientists are studying these animals to see if they might be a separate population from the spring spawners.

The boat trip starts about suppertime. On our trip, Captain Mike supplied a wonderful array of sandwiches, soft drinks and water, and a fruit tray of such variety and abundance that people were still snacking on fruits as we headed back to shore after a couple of hours on the water!

A late summer, early evening ride on a pontoon boat is very pleasant, even if you aren’t expecting to view something so historic and rare in nature as Atlantic Sturgeon. I highly encourage you to take advantage of this delightful opportunity that we are lucky enough to have so close to our homes right here in Virginia!



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