A story of big fish – richmondmagazine.com

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In May 1779, Martin Hawkins reportedly saw a sturgeon near the Isle of Mayo while fishing shad. He gripped his fins and Rode the beast like a Colonial Pecos Bill. The 10-foot, 300-pound fish eventually grew weary of trying to fend it off, and Hawkins, according to the story, managed to beach the bulk of the Manchester side of the river. There, the unlucky fish foresaw an evening of feasting and merriment.

Some 242 years later, after a September afternoon of heavy torrential downpours and rapidly rising waters, I followed up an invitation from the James River Association join the observers on the 40-foot pontoon boat Spirit of the James.

Our goal was not to mount or catch a sturgeon, but rather to observe the males. breach or jump out of the water.

These dinosaur-era fish are the largest creatures inhabiting the James. In mid-September, the fish from here make “the big comeback” to spawn. You can watch them break and fall apart.

At 6 p.m. we left Rocketts Landing, leaving behind the joggers, the marina bristling with boats and menacing condominium balcony decks, the steel-framed skeleton of an industrial building by the community pool and the row houses with a retro look. townhouses that look like some of the open spots near Fulton in one of Richmond’s worst examples “urban renewal. ”

The approaching dusk pushed sharp shards of blue between the battleship’s gray clouds. The speed of the Spirit of the James rose from the coiled shoulders of spray, and the rushing wind added euphoria to the acceleration. The assembled sturgeon seekers settled down for the trip. Several passengers held up impressive long-lens cameras.

Then we came across waves of plastic bottles and cups floating in a miasma. Our captain, Aaron Bouchard, environmental educator for the James River Association, explained that these wrecks erupted a few hours earlier into the otherwise clean river due to the “CSO (Combined Sewer Overflow) event) “of this afternoon. That is, the powerful rains flooded the city’s combined sewage system, which could not withstand the pressure.

During its August special session, the Virginia General Assembly allocated $ 411 million, of some $ 4.3 billion in federal funding under the American Rescue Plan Act, for drinking water projects in the over the next three years. This includes $ 125 million to repair combined sewer systems, including those in Richmond and Lynchburg, to prevent the eruption of untreated sewage into the James River during heavy rains. Richmond is expected to receive $ 50 million for a a total need estimated at 883 million dollars.

Our ship continued past two-story weathered metal docks, one of which featured a sign that, in a cheerful cursive postcard, exclaimed, “Welcome to Richmond!” Along the sandy harbor of Richmond, we negotiated around tugs pushing barges.

Bouchard told us about sturgeon. After swimming in the James for three to five years, they take to the sea. They belong to a special class, the euryhaline, which, thanks to osmoregulation, survive in both fresh and salt water. This gift of nature allows our sturgeon to return home twice a year. Unlike salmon, they neither reproduce nor die. Sturgeon can live up to 65 years. In the James, their most important predators are the transport vessels.

The fierce-looking fish, which has not changed in appearance for some 200 million years, protects its muscular back with five rows of bony plates, called scales.

But sturgeons are toothless.

They suck their food from the ground.

The sturgeon’s relationship with humans along the James River is complicated. Members of the Pamunkey tribe, due to the large size of the fish, accorded them great respect, and legends say that some may have foreshadowed Martin Hawkins and took a tour as a rite of passage. Captain John Smith, accustomed to tales of big fish, wrote that during his 17th century expeditions, the fullness of the sturgeons caused traffic jams that could hamper the progress of the small reconnaissance boats.

Sturgeons were captured and eaten by the early settlers, who did not see fish as a delicacy but as a means of survival.

Immigrants at the end of the 19th century were familiar with the Atlantic sturgeon and its eggs in the form of caviar. Meat has become an offering in the markets and restaurants of Richmond. In some crude cases, the kidnappers used chains to tie the huge troubled fish to the pillars’ stilts and bridge supports to harvest their eggs.

Overfishing, dams and pollution have driven sturgeon to near extinction. Virginia in 1974 made their murder illegal. In 1998, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission banned sturgeon fishing and poaching from Maine to Florida. And in 2012, the fish received an endangered species designation that coincided with improvements to the James River. Sturgeon sightings increased and other wildlife continued to re-inhabit the waterway.

During our cruise, Bouchard reported to us two separate bald eagles perched on top of trees and a flight of egrets. A great winged blue heron walked away along a stream as if it were running through a city alley. The Spirit of the James came to a stop within sight of the Pocahontas Parkway Bridge. The sounds of birds, crickets and cicadas floated towards us.

Why do sturgeons break up? Bouchard listed the possibilities: reproductive behavior (“Look, ladies, how high I can jump! “), a way to regulate your swim bladder or, my favorite: because it’s fun.

Julia Carson, senior environmental educator at the James River Association, stood ready beside a tripod-mounted camera.

“Sturgeons when they make a breach are not as graceful, like dolphins or whales,” she says. “More like a stomach flop.” She had recorded part of this action the week before.

A few splashes of sturgeon did occur, the sound reminding me of a fat person making a cannonball at the bottom of the pool, but I failed to spot the closest and loudest one, although I did. observed the plume quite large.

Sturgeon watchers said, “Ooohhh! As we do at a fireworks display.

We quickly turned around for Rocketts. I have contemplated in the turbulent eddies the great story of James, the first inhabitants who crisscrossed these waters in canoes like their highway; the Europeans who took the bends without knowing what they were going to encounter; those who chose a new life here and those who had no choice; sailors and warriors; explorers and exploiters and excursionists of steamboats enjoying nights of music and mirth. Coming from there, the illuminated towers of the city evoke a certain romanticism that the highways cannot match.

So let’s take care of this river, and it will take care of us. And if you’re lucky you’ll one day see a sturgeon leap forward in the sheer joy of living and being at home, again.


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