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NOAA Assessments Could Help Restore Sturgeon Habitat

Atlantic sturgeon, which live in the ocean but spawn in tidal freshwater, have been lost from most of their original range due to overfishing and habitat loss. To meet their spawning needs, sturgeon prefer fast-flowing deep river channels with hard bottoms or cobble beds.

But these habitats are threatened by activities, including dredging and filling, which can alter water flow and increase siltation. Even in the face of such challenges, Virginia's James River maintains a viable spawning population.

NOAA Investigates Sturgeon Habitat

NOAA scientists are identifying habitat in the James that could be enhanced, in effect “renovating homes” for James River sturgeon. In 2009, the NOAA Chesapeake Bay Office used a side-scan sonar bathymetry system to survey 16 linear kilometers of the James River.

To map areas that are likely candidates for successful sturgeon habitat restoration efforts, the team used acoustic sensors near Hopewell, Virginia, to characterize benthic habitats. They found numerous habitat features that sturgeon need at various times in their lifecycle, including ledges and isolated gravel beds.

The team also used GPS-referenced underwater video and bottom sampling to visualize and document bottom type and deployed an acoustic Doppler current profiler to describe the hydrodynamics in areas being considered for restoration.

NOAA partnered with Virginia Commonwealth University, Virginia Sea Grant, Upper James Riverkeeper, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, and Virginia Mineral Management and Energy Service, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on this project.

Putting the Research to Work

This work will help identify essential fish habitat that will aid preservation and restoration of Atlantic sturgeon. Fishery managers will be able to use maps of bathymetry and river bottom composition to identify areas of clean gravel, important for spawning habitat. Habitat maps will help identify locations for spawning habitat restoration efforts. The creation of a baseline inventory provides a temporal snapshot of benthic habitat conditions in this highly altered river system prerestoration.

The Final Step to Protect Sturgeon

A new sensor on the NOAA Chesapeake Bay Office's Chesapeake Bay Interpretive Buoy System observation platform in the James River (off Jamestown) is tracking tagged sturgeon. NOAA has been evaluating the need to list Atlantic sturgeon under the federal Endangered Species Act since 2007. Added to habitat restoration work, efforts like these from NOAA and its partners will give the sturgeon a fighting chance.


James River upriver survey area
James River upriver survey area