Monsters lurk in the James River

Published 7:52 pm Tuesday, December 9, 2014

By Susan and Biff Andrews

Yes, Virginia, there are monsters in the James River — huge ones eight feet long, hundreds and hundreds of pounds.

They have sharp “scutes” instead of scales, and they’re ancient — one of the two oldest known fish species — dating back 120 million years. They swam this area when dinosaurs walked.

Email newsletter signup

They are Atlantic Sturgeon. Maximum length: 15 feet. Maximum weight: More than 800 pounds.

They range from Canada to Florida. The last known breeding population in Virginia, however, is in the James River, mostly near the Hopewell area. There are attempts to reintroduce them to other western shore rivers — the Mattaponi and the Rappahannock — by blowing up dams. But for now, the James is where they roam.

How have these monsters survived?

They nearly didn’t.

When the Jamestown colonists arrived, sturgeon were so plentiful that they were sometimes beached by a swift outgoing tide. They were the first “cash crop” harvested in Jamestown. They became extremely valuable when their eggs were found to be a cheap source of caviar.

In the 19th century, seven million pounds of sturgeon meat were exported from the U.S. every year. Those numbers eventually fell to 22,000 pounds, but by the 1950s new techniques had the harvest back at 200,000 pounds a year.

No more. Atlantic sturgeon are extinct in most of their historical range, including most of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. They were officially named an endangered species in Virginia in 2012. Overfishing, pollution, dams and habitat destruction all took their toll.

But there are promising signs of growth. It is now believed the James River population breeds twice a year, in the spring and the fall. An artificial reef has been constructed near Hopewell to provide the perfect environment for spawning.

Dams on other rivers are being destroyed to allow shad and eels and herring — and perhaps sturgeon — back to their headwaters to spawn. Their numbers appear to be increasing.

I have personally caught — and released — a young sturgeon off the beach in Rescue.

You can even take a tour (there are six planned) from the Hopewell area trying to see these monsters breach — six-footers launching themselves clear of the water.

The guru of James River sturgeon breaching, tagging and catching is a VCU professor who sports sturgeon tattoos and runs those September river tours to see fish breach.

His name is Dr. Matt Balazik.

Join him, and maybe you, too, can see one of these elusive James River monsters.

Susan and Bradford “Biff” Andrews are retired teachers and master naturalists who have been outdoor people all their lives, exploring and enjoying the woods, swamps, rivers and beaches throughout the region for many years. Email them at