STURGEON SPECIES RECOVERY GRANT

The Pamunkey Indian Tribe, in collaboration with Chesapeake Scientific, LLC consultant Christian Hager, will assess the current number of Atlantic Sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrinchus) spawning populations and the abundance of fish within those populations to expand the ecological knowledge and stewardship of the Pamunkey and Mattaponi Rivers under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) grant funding. In February 2012, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) listed the Atlantic Sturgeon in this distinct population segment as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA; 77 Federal Register 5714, 5880). A small population of sturgeon was found living in the Pamunkey River in 2013 (Kahn, Hager, Watterson, Russo, Moore & Hartman, 2014). The duration of this project is July 2018 – November 2020. Click the link below to access the Pamunkey Indian Tribe Sturgeon Grant.

Four interconnected goals addressed in the grant include:

  • Create a more comprehensive ecological picture of the Pamunkey and Mattaponi Rivers and develop a Pamunkey River Keeper role to continue the work and foster improved stewardship.
  • Improve physical models of the rivers to better understand the relationship of water quality factors to Atlantic Sturgeon spawning habitats.
  • Calculate the spawning populations in the rivers.
  • Determine the validity of off-the-shelf side scan sonar for enumerating sturgeon.

A brief history of the Atlantic Sturgeon, along with the sturgeon’s connection to the Pamunkey Indian Tribe, relates the importance of studying, protecting, and recovering these endangered fish. Highlights, project updates, and monitoring data document the progress under the grant.

THE ATLANTIC STURGEON

Atlantic Sturgeon have a prehistoric-like appearance with their five rows of bony plates or scutes, elongated snout, shark-like tails, four well-developed barbels, and absence of typical scales. This family of fish (Acipenseridae) swam with the dinosaurs around 120 million years ago. Adult sturgeon can reach lengths of 14 feet and weigh up to 800 pounds, however, sturgeon in this distinct population range may reach 5 feet and 90 pounds (male) to 8 feet and 225 pounds (female). As bottom feeders, they have a protruding vacuum-like mouth on the underside of their head for eating aquatic insects, shrimps, mollusks and some fishes living in the substrate. They mature slowly (males in just under 10 years and females in around 10 years) and are long-lived (males about 30 years and females about 60 years). Sturgeon are anadromous fish, meaning they spend most of their lives in saltwater and migrate upriver to spawn in freshwater. Females reproduce only once every 2 to 6 years, favoring a gravel or clay chunk bottom to which their eggs (up to 2 million) can cling. DNA samples and tracking records provide that these fish return to their natal rivers to spawn.   

Sturgeon laying out on the Pamunkey River bank
Field analysis of a sturgeon in the Pamunkey River.
Photo by Pamunkey Tribal Member, Desiree Nuckols.

Overfishing and habitat degradation are primary causes for the decline in the sturgeon population. During the 18th and 19th century the Chesapeake Bay supported the second greatest caviar fishery in the United States, however, by the end of the 19th century the overharvesting of sturgeon for their roe and flesh had severely depleted the population. The 1890 peak Atlantic coast catch of 7,382,000 pounds had dwindled to less than 100,000 pounds by the 1920s. Virginia’s ban on harvesting of sturgeon less than four feet in length in 1925 did little to spark the species’ recovery, requiring the state to issue a moratorium on the harvest of sturgeon in salt or freshwater in 1974. Today, there are additional challenges to the species’ recovery beyond fishing and bycatch. Increased deforestation of land (e.g., agriculture) and development (e.g., industry, housing) results in erosion and deposits of sediment and toxins in the rivers, blocking sunlight needed by underwater grasses and small fishes. Settling sediment smothers shellfish and other bottom-dwelling species and covers the gravel-like river bottom favored by sturgeon for spawning. Agricultural fertilizer and wastewater seeping into the river increase the amount of nutrients (e.g., nitrogen and phosphate) in the water leading to eutrophication, a process of in which nutrients promote algal bloom that blocks sunlight and leads to oxygen depletion as plants die and bacteria consume the remaining oxygen. Sturgeon are sensitive to dissolved oxygen levels and water temperature (for spawning). In addition to the habitat degradation, the late maturation of females and the lengthy interval between spawning cycles further complicate recovery efforts.

These waters [Chesapeake Bay and tributaries] are stored with incredible quantities of fish…Sturgeon and shad are in such prodigious numbers, that one day, within the space of two mile only, some gentlemen in canoes caught above 600 of the former with hooks, which they let down to the bottom, and drew up at a venture when they perceived them to rub against a fish.

– Maxwell, W. 1852-1853. The Virginia Historical Register. Vol 5-6, p. 35.

STURGEON  AND THE  PAMUNKEY  INDIAN  CULTURE

Sturgeon drawing by Pamunkey Indian Tribe member, Kirk Moore.

The sturgeon species played an important role in Pamunkey Indian culture as food, source of income, and coming of age ritual for young men. Fisheries along the East Coast processed sturgeon meat, eggs, and oils for export to Europe. The roe was considered a delicacy and the most favored and highly valuable part of the sturgeon. The Pamunkey used a variety of fishing methods to catch sturgeon.

While archaeological studies provide that the Pamunkey diet included sturgeon, the fish also served as a source of income. From the 1800s through the early 1900s, the Pamunkey and other fishermen along the East Coast took advantage of the market demand for sturgeon. Lester Manor, a small town that used to be located right outside the Pamunkey Indian Reservation, played an essential role in the processing and transport of fish. The town was often referred to as “Fish Hall” due to the high volume of freshwater fish being processed and transported along the rail that cut through it. Built in 1859, the Richmond and York River rail line once operated an established depot at Lestor Manor which supported transport of fish, including sturgeon and its roe, to the Baltimore commission houses. The high demand for sturgeon meat and roe was the main contributor to the rapid decline of these prehistoric fish along the East Coast.

When my grandfather fished for sturgeon, the fish were so big that they had to put a halter around them and drag them in the water back to shore. They were over six feet long. Then they would take the roe out. My grandmother would process it. She would take it apart and salt it, leave it a couple of days, and then wash and salt it again. Next, they would pack it up, and they would ship it by train up to Baltimore for processing as caviar.

– Interview with Warren Cook, August 2018

The Pamunkey people utilized various approaches to catch sturgeon. A widely used commercial approach to harvesting fish involved the use of drift nets (or seines) that hang vertically in the water with floats attached to the top of the net and weights attached to the bottom. Fishermen know that a sturgeon is entrapped in the net when the floats pull down closer to the water’s top. The more traditional Pamunkey method is the construction of a bush-fence to trap or contain fish as the tide lowers. During low tide, poles (usually wooden) were driven several feet apart into the mud at the entrance to creeks feeding into the Pamunkey River. Pliable branches or marsh grass were used to weave a fence with the top sloped upstream so that fish could pass over the fence during high tide. Once the tide rose and fish swam into the creek, the brush hedge would trap the fish in the creek as the tide receded. Pamunkey fishermen retrieved the entrapped sturgeon using a constructed jig-hook.

Outline of a plan of Pamunkey bush-fences
Speck (1928) p. 361

Based on interviews with the Pamunkey elders, the capture of an Atlantic Sturgeon played a role in the right of passage ritual for young Pamunkey men. The young men would catch and ride a sturgeon a certain distance to earn their way to adulthood. At completion, the Pamunkey boy would then become a man.

The [I]ndian way of catching Sturgeon, when they came into the narrow part of the rivers, was by a man’s clapping a noose over the tail and by keeping fast his hold. Thus a fish finding itself entangled would flounce and often pull him under water. And then that man was counted a cockarouse, or brave fellow that wouldn’t let go, till with swimming, wading, and diving, he had tried the sturgeon and brought it ashore.”

– Excerpt from the History and Present State of Virginia (1705, by Robert Beverley, p. 138)

Resources

Beverly, Robert. (1855). The History of Virginia in Four Parts. J.W. Randolph. Accessed August 13, 2019, from https://archive.org/details/historyvirginia00campgoog/page/n138.

Blankenship, K. (2014). Atlantic sturgeon back in Bay, or did they ever leave?: ’Fish that swam with the dinosaurs’ showing up in unexpected rivers and at unlikely times. Bay Journal. Retrieved from https://www.bayjournal.com/article/atlantic_sturgeon_back_in_bay_or_did_they_ever_leave.

Dennis. (2014, February 14). Powhatan Fishing Customs. [Forum Post]. Accessed August 13, 2019, from accessgenealogy.com/native/powhatan-fishing-customs.htm.

Hager, C., Kahn, J. Watterson, C., Russo, J. & Hartman, K. (2014). Evidence of Atlantic Sturgeon Spawning in the York River System, Transactions of the American Fisheries Society, 143(5), 1217-1219.

Kahn, J. E., Hager, C., Watterson, J. C., Russo, J., Moore, K. & Hartman, K. (2014). Atlantic Sturgeon Annual Spawning Run Estimate in the Pamunkey River, Virginia. Transactions of the American Fisheries Society, 143(6), 1508-1514.

Maryland Department of Natural Resources. (nd). Maryland Fish Facts: Atlantic Sturgeon. Retrieved from https://dnr.maryland.gov/fisheries/Pages/Fish-Facts.aspx?fishname=Atlantic%20Sturgeon

Musick, J. A. (2005). Essential Fish Habitat of Atlantic Sturgeon Acipenser oxyrinchus in the Southern Chesapeake Bay. Final Report to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: National Marine Fisheries Service for NOAA Award NA03NMF4050200 (AFC) 37. Gloucester, VA: Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) & College of William and Mary.

National Ocean Service: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (nd). Ocean Facts: What is eutrophication?  Retrieved from: https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/eutrophication.html

Speck, Frank Gouldsmith. (1928). Chapters on Ethnology of the Powhatan Tribes of Virginia. Indian Notes and Monographs. New York Museum of the American Indian: Heye Foundation. Accessed August 13, 2019, from https://library.si.edu/digital-library/book/chaptersonethnol00spec

Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS). (nd). Atlantic Sturgeon. Retrieved from https://www.vims.edu/research/facilities/fishcollection/_archive/highlights/atlantic_sturgeon.php

STURGEON SPECIES RECOVERY GRANT DATA

Water Monitoring Data

Field Work Gallery