Dedicated to the Conservation of Southeastern Fishes
Scientists Implant Transmitters In Fish
March 22, 2008
WILLIAMSBURG - Chris Hager was trying to surgically implant a high-tech transmitter into an ancient fish, but nature wasn't cooperating.
Hager, a marine biologist, stood in knee-deep water as he operated on the 3½-foot Atlantic sturgeon, a bone-plated beast that looks like a cross between a shark and a stegosaurus. Waves jostled the fish.
"I'm dealing with a constantly moving object," Hager cried over the wind. "It's like operating on a roller coaster."
The sturgeon, which can top 10 feet in length and once swam with dinosaurs, has been on a roller coaster of sorts for a long time.
This is the first year that scientists studying sturgeons in the James River are using sophisticated transmitters that reveal the location of a fish and the water's depth and temperature.
Just a few years ago, some experts believed the fish was virtually extinct in the Chesapeake Bay region -- victims of long-ago overfishing and pollution. Now, however, Hager and other scientists involved in a multi-agency study believe a small population is clinging to life and breeding in the James. They are trying to help the sturgeon bounce back.
If the study can determine such things as where the fish spawn, protections could be put in place such as "no wake" zones for boats.
On the horizon: Experts expect the federal government will soon propose protecting the sturgeon under the Endangered Species Act.
Such protections could potentially cause restrictions on activities such as dredging, which can stir up mud that covers the fish's eggs.
By discovering where the sturgeons go and when, the study could find ways that dredging and other activities could go on around the fish, Hager said.
If the sturgeon can rebound, anglers may get a chance someday to catch 7-foot fish near Richmond, and commercial fishermen could harvest meat and caviar.
The James sturgeons appear to be the only ones breeding in the Chesapeake Bay region. Perhaps someday, fish from a rejuvenated James population will move into other rivers.
"If we can't turn this thing around in the James River, that's the last hope for Chesapeake Bay," said Greg Garman, a fish ecologist at Virginia Commonwealth University.
One of the most interesting things the scientists have found is the presence of numerous big sturgeons that gathered just upriver from Hopewell in September.
One fish that Hager briefly caught there was estimated at 9 to 10 feet long. Seven sturgeons were found dead from boat collisions.
Adult sturgeons leave the ocean and swim up rivers in the spring to breed. Could it be that they breed above Hopewell in the fall, too? If so, that could be a time and place for boaters to go slow.
The study began about three years ago and is expected to continue for several more years.
At the Kingsmill marina near Williamsburg, VCU graduate student Matt Balazik held the 3½-foot sturgeon -- labeled No. 81 -- upside down in the shallow water as Hager operated. (Commercial fishermen had caught the fish for study.)
Hager sliced a 2-inch opening in the fish's belly, then slid in the $580 transmitter, about the size of a fountain pen. It nestled in the sturgeon's intestines.
Hager works for Virginia Sea Grant, a research agency. Others involved in the study include VCU; the James River Association, a conservation group; the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; and state and federal wildlife agencies.
The waves hindered Hager's efforts to stitch up the wound, but Balazik steadied the fish against a dock.
No. 81 would join more than a dozen transmitter-carrying sturgeons. The transmitters document the travels of the fish by sending signals to receivers on buoys in the James.
Hager finished stitching up the fish and released it with a little shove. The sturgeon came to the surface twice then disappeared in the muddy James.
Some day soon, No. 81 may reappear as a blip on a computer screen, sending signals of hope to its kind.