Atlantic sturgeon restoration

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If you notice a dead sturgeon on the river, please contact VCU at (804) 827-0236 or email

James River Sturgeon from Melissa Lesh on Vimeo.

The Atlantic Sturgeon is a biological and historical superlative. It is the largest and longest-lived aquatic organism in the Atlantic Slope rivers of North America, and played a critical role in the establishment of the Jamestown settlement. 

Centuries of overfishing, habitat alteration and pollution have eradicated this “founding fish” from many Chesapeake Bay tributaries. In Virginia, small but viable populations of Atlantic Sturgeon persist in several rivers, including the James, and the species is now listed as federally endangered through most of its historic range. As a consequence of the species’ long decline and current rarity, biologists understand very little about sturgeon behavior, ecology, or life history.

VCU Rice Rivers Center is at the center of the Virginia Sturgeon Restoration Team’s effort to restore the Atlantic Sturgeon to its native range and historical stature within state waters. Leading the group Matthew Balazik, Ph.D., research assistant professor, Greg Garman, Ph.D., director of the VCU Rice Rivers Center, and Stephen McIninch, Ph.D., assistant professor.

In 2012, Balazik documented fall spawning by the James River’s sturgeon, which overturned the long-standing assumption of spring-only spawning and has significant implications for conservation and management.

Specific research activities

Habitat utilization assessment and restoration

The VCU Rice Rivers Center uses active and passive acoustic telemetry, combined with geospatial analysis to assess temporal and spatial movements of Atlantic Sturgeon within critical habitats. In addition, real-time information on water quality and weather is generated by VCU sondes and sensors within the region. Tracking data are integrated with high-resolution benthic habitat data, produced by side-scan sonar, to define essential habitat for various life history stages of sturgeon and other fishes.

Restoration of spawning and nursery habitat

Sturgeon prefer to spawn in clean, hard bottom habitats, attaching their eggs to rubble, cobble or submerged vegetation. Much of this habitat in the tidal freshwater James River was lost to channel dredging or buried under sediment.

In 2010, our researchers and other members of the Virginia Sturgeon Restoration Team installed a spawning reef the size of a football field, the first on the East Coast, near Presquile National Wildlife Refuge. We actively monitor this, and other artificial sturgeon reefs for evidence of spawning.

Population monitoring

Our biologists track more than 150 endangered Atlantic Sturgeon in the James River and Chesapeake Bay.

We also have done historical studies to gain insight into how the sturgeon population has changed over the past 400 years. A 2010 study led by Balazik analyzed sturgeon age and growth rates by comparing colonial-era sturgeon spines from middens in colonial Jamestown to modern sturgeon spines from the James River population.

In contrast to current James River sturgeon, the colonial population contained older, larger individuals and showed slower growth rates, similar to modern populations living in regions with colder water.

Expand knowledge of sturgeon mortality factors
Researchers continue to monitor and evaluate a wide range of potential threats to sturgeon, including the impact of bycatch, vessel interactions and dredging.

Identification of additional spawning and nursery grounds

Center researchers use side-scan benthic mapping and substrate analysis of Chesapeake Bay tributaries to determine the extent of appropriate spawning habitat. A significant loss of fishery habitat in the tidal Chesapeake Bay resulted from decades of river channel alteration, maintenance dredging and sedimentation. Such changes also appear to increase the chances in which Atlantic Sturgeon are struck by vessels, which were implicated in at least 80 sturgeon deaths since 2007 in the tidal James River.