Reviving the Sturgeon
While dinosaurs are known to be extinct, a prehistoric monster still swims in the winding waters of the James River. Threatened, and decreasing in numbers, the Atlantic Sturgeon remains one of the oldest fish still living in North America, with a lifespan ranging up to sixty years. Over the past few decades, circumstances have been working against this historic fish. In the Virginia area, over-fishing, habitat alteration, and pollution have all been factors working together to diminish the sturgeon population in the James River and Chesapeake Bay. The fish’s size, ranging up to 14 feet in length and 800 pounds, make it a hefty prize for ambitious fishermen, but the environmental and historic impact of its extinction would be significant.
As it takes quite a long time for the fish to repopulate (with a lengthy spawning interval of every one to five years), the sturgeon’s numbers have been on decline since the 1800s. The decline escalated until February 2012, when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service listed the fish as an endangered species. However, this claim did little to assist in the revitalization of the species, as the only management done was restricting the parameters of catching these sturgeons.
Like much of Virginia, the sturgeon has a unique history of its own. Its abundance in the James River during the colonial settlement gained it the title of the “founding fish” of Jamestown. Because the settlers were familiar with the sturgeon species that lived in the Thames River in England, they were equipped with the knowledge on how to catch and cook the sturgeon, and this knowledge allowed the colonists to survive, especially during the period known as “The Starving Time” in 1609-10. The settlers also documented that the sturgeon was culturally significant to the local Native American tribes of that time. As a rite of passage to manhood, the young men of the local tribes would hold onto the backs of sturgeon and ride.
So what can we do to stay the disappearance of the sturgeon population in Virginia’s waterways? Thankfully, a Richmond group is willing to fight for the revival of Virginia’s founding fish. The Envision the James Project invites communities and individuals to help sustain and improve the natural quality of the James River and its surroundings. Through its efforts, this organization has partnered with researchers from Virginia Commonwealth University to revitalize the population of the sturgeon in the James River and Chesapeake Bay. These research activities include tracking the sturgeon’s moving patterns, the restoration of spawning and nursery habitats, as well as the in-depth research of threats to sturgeon mortality.
Alongside these scientific efforts, the sturgeon’s situation has sparked artistic activism as well. A cement wall at Cary and Robinson streets in Richmond, displays the work of local artists who have spoken out about Virginia’s ecological issues. Brightly colors maps and info graphics pop out of the cement, speaking statistical facts on the James River’s and Virginia Watershed’s environmental qualities. Most striking is the massive and detailed painting of an Atlantic Sturgeon, bold and loud, with the caption “SURVIVOR.” In much smaller letters reads the sentence, “VA stopped fishing prehistoric sturgeon in 1974,” highlighting the state’s efforts to assist in the protection of the fish.
So what can we do to help the sturgeon’s rebirth in the James? The Envision the James project seems to be the most inclusive project anyone seeking to assist in this project. By becoming a member of this community, opportunities for learning more about the many efforts of restoring the James become available, as well as being able to connect with the many people already out in the field. To join in the fight for sturgeon revival, and take part in your environmental community, visit the Envision the James project online at http://www.envisionthejames.org/join. pl
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