- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 28, 2004

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A 6-inch fish pulled from the James River by schoolchildren has revived hope that an ancient and rare species still is reproducing in Virginia waters.

Moody Middle School students on a Chesapeake Bay Foundation field trip netted the leathery, plate-covered Atlantic sturgeon about 20 miles downstream of Richmond on Wednesday.

The sturgeon was snagged as the students pulled a trawl net behind their boat near Westover Plantation to learn about the fish that inhabit the river.

“It was truly the hit of the whole trip,” said foundation spokesman Chuck Epes. “The kids were saying we are going to be famous.”

Albert Spells, Virginia fisheries coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife, said after examining the baby sturgeon, “I’m 99.9 percent sure” that reproduction is occurring, adding, “That’s significant.”

Mr. Spells said biologists long have assumed that a remnant population of sturgeon still venture from the ocean each spring to mix their eggs and sperm in select gravel-covered depths of the freshwater tidal James. But until Wednesday’s discovery, a young-enough fish never had been found to confirm reproductive success.

“Does it mean that there is an abundance of spawners? No,” Mr. Spells said. “But, it does mean there is at least one male and one female” old enough to be sexually mature.

Sturgeon can exceed 12 feet in length and weigh hundreds of pounds. The record is a specimen from Canada that measured 14 feet and weighed more than 800 pounds, Mr. Spells said.

Mr. Spells said the 6-inch sturgeon is the smallest documented in recent times from the bay. Judging by the fish’s size, Mr. Spells said it probably was spawned last spring.

Sturgeon are so migratory that only the discovery of the tiniest could betray spawning activity, said Lewis Gillingham, a fishery management specialist with the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.

“When you get one that’s two or two-and-a-half feet long, it could as likely be from Maine or South Carolina or Florida,” Mr. Gillingham said. “They just wander over and over.”

Of the 300 sturgeon caught by Virginia watermen during a study in the late 1990s, all but 30 came from the James, Mr. Spells said.

But that effort at Chesapeake Bay sturgeon research sputtered because the fish is not caught for sport or commercial purposes, and therefore, there is no push to spend the money to restore the sturgeon population.

Sturgeon once were abundant in bay rivers but were overfished because of the market in their meat and eggs in the 19th century. Today, they confront nets set for other species and endure pollution that has damaged water quality on their spawning grounds, Mr. Gillingham said.

Sturgeon need clean gravel river bottoms on which to deposit their eggs. Sediment from upstream road building, construction, farming and other human activities are making such areas hard to find, Spells said.

The fish also take years 15 to 18 in the case of females to reach sexual maturity. That means that many probably die before ever getting a chance to spawn.

“If I had to design something to go extinct, it would be a sturgeon,” Mr. Gillingham said.

New pollution limits offer hope that will never happen, said Chris Conner of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Chesapeake Bay Program.

Virginia and its bay state neighbors have agreed to combat nutrient pollution and sedimentation with new standards beginning in the next couple of years.

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