Va. sturgeon may be key to fish’s recovery

Federal protection sought for species

Matt Balazik, a graduate student at Virginia Commonwealth University, grabbed an Atlantic sturgeon he caught in the James River. “Their strength is just amazing,’’ he said. Matt Balazik, a graduate student at Virginia Commonwealth University, grabbed an Atlantic sturgeon he caught in the James River. “Their strength is just amazing,’’ he said. (Steve Helber/Associated Press)
By Steve Szkotak
Associated Press / November 27, 2010

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HOPEWELL, Va. — Researcher Matt Balazik wears his passion for saving the Atlantic sturgeon on his right arm — a tattoo of the ancient fish — and lives it by counting the bottom-feeding giants in the James River.

The 30-year-old doctoral student is part sturgeon wrangler, part census taker as he patrols the river in a small boat, checking 1,000-foot-long nets for what scientists believe is the last viable reproductive population of Atlantic sturgeon in the Chesapeake Bay. Sturgeon, which have survived virtually unchanged since the time of the dinosaurs, are dwindling worldwide because of humans.

You hear these monster fish before you see them: Atlantic sturgeon leap out of the water and land with a loud splash.

On a recent languid fall day on the river, in one of his last checks of the day in this shoestring recovery effort, Balazik snared a sturgeon in his net and hauls it into the well of his boat.

Working with the skill of a Savile Row tailor, he records the big male’s length, girth, and gender, tags it, then lifts it onto a scale before posing with his trophy for a picture and tossing the 6-foot-long, armor-plated fish back into the river’s silt-flecked waters.

“Their strength is just amazing,’’ said Balazik, who has learned how to work with them rather than against them. “They just have great personalities.’’

Several species of sturgeon range from the Canadian Maritimes and the Great Lakes to Florida.

The once-bountiful Atlantic sturgeon that sustained Native Americans and North America’s first European settlers now may number in the hundreds in the Chesapeake Bay, but no one really knows.

“If sturgeon are to be restored to the Chesapeake Bay, it will happen on the backs of the James River population,’’ said Greg C. Garman, director for the Center for Environmental Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and one of the leaders of this collaborative effort.

Last month, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration announced that the Chesapeake Bay sturgeon was among five East Coast populations proposed for protection. The proposed listing is a desperate attempt to save “a fish of superlatives,’’ Garman said.

The listing would be aimed at protecting the fish’s habitat; their harvest is already banned.

“Sturgeon is the most endangered family of fish,’’ said Brad Sewell, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, which has pushed for protections. “Globally, they’re all going extinct.’’

Sturgeon populations across the world have been threatened because of overfishing, pollution, and dams that prevent the fish from reaching spawning grounds. Earlier this year, the Consortium for Ocean Leadership, based in Washington, D.C., reported that 85 percent of sturgeon populations worldwide were at risk of becoming extinct.

In the United States, sturgeon populations were depleted in the late 19th century as demand grew for their caviar. Now the greatest threats to the Atlantic sturgeon are pollution, climate change, and cargo ships that navigate up the James and the Hudson River in New York.

Garman has found sturgeon cleanly sliced in half by the propellers of those ships.

Before the bay’s sturgeon can be restored, however, researchers have much to learn. The big fish spend most of their lives in North Atlantic waters, returning to their native waters in the James to spawn. Garman calls them “terrific explorers.’’

“Our fish are caught in the Hudson, the Delaware,’’ he said. “They’re moving all over the place.’’

Not too many years ago, researchers had pronounced the James River sturgeon population nearly extinct. Biologists couldn’t find the fish. Then commercial fishermen set them straight.

In 1997, the US Fish and Wildlife Service offered a bounty of $100 for each live sturgeon captured. Biologists were soon rewarded with nearly 300 sturgeon retrieved from the James, York, and Rappahannock rivers. The fish were tagged, then returned to the water.

Sturgeon can grow to 15 feet, weigh hundreds of pounds, and live a century.

Balazik claims each has its own personality.

“It has gone through meteors, ice ages, megavolcanoes, but sadly it couldn’t handle mankind,’’ he said. top stories on Twitter

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