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BY LAWRENCE LATANE III
May 4, 2005

GLOUCESTER POINT -- Chris Hager strained to lift the giant Atlantic sturgeon into a holding tank, but the beast beat him to it by shooting like a steer from the net and crashing with a thump into the reservoir.

The 70-pounder foamed the water with his scythe-like tail, spun around the perimeter of the tank and threw a surf-sized wave back at Hager before he could slam the lid.

The water was still streaming down Hager's face when the fish surged again. This time, the momentum of the charge inside the 300-gallon reservoir in the back of a Ford pickup shook the truck on its wheels.

A federal agency is considering whether Atlantic sturgeon should be placed on the endangered species list, but there was nothing frail or endangered about the 5-foot-long sturgeon that Hager manhandled yesterday.

By mid-morning, the rare fish was bound for a hatchery in Maryland that is central to a rescue effort that Virginia, Maryland and the federal government have launched on the Chesapeake Bay.

The fish is the first that Hager, a scientist with the Virginia Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, has provided the hatchery.

With a little bit more luck, it soon may be joined by others taken from the James River to reproduce in captivity before being re- leased later this spring.

A remnant population of these survivors from Paleozoic times still swims into the James each spring to spawn. But that is nearly the extent of knowledge about this fading species that once spawned in every major Chesapeake tributary before retreating in the face of centuries of exploitation and water pollution.

Three watermen working for the project have found a hot spot in the James a short distance above Newport News in Burwells Bay, where they have caught several sturgeon in recent days.

"That's only our third-largest fish," said Kelly Place of Williamsburg as the sturgeon, looking rubbery and tough as an alligator, thrashed in a holding net before being transferred to the truck.

Place and watermen James Moore and George Trice netted and released two other giants up to 5½ feet long last week before Hager and his colleagues could round up the gear and equipment to ship them to the hatchery.

Their luck raises questions about how many sturgeon continue to make the annual trip up the James to perpetuate a Chesapeake Bay strain of their kind.

As sort of the Ivory-billed wood****** of the bay, the sturgeon was long thought extinct or at least extremely rare in the Chesapeake. But Place said he has gathered reports in recent years of several netted and released in the bay and along the Virginia coast.

"We don't know if it's one fish or 100 fish spawning in the James," Hager said. This spring's research in the river "will provide baselines," he said, "essential to the restoration effort."

Hager, VIMS scientist Jack Musick and Albert Spells of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have joined forces to conduct the survey that is being underwritten by $32,800 from the Sea Grant program.

As fascinating as it sounds, catching sturgeon for the hatchery is just a secondary goal of this spring's quest.

The watermen are using a variety of nets with different size mesh to compare catch rates of sturgeon. Hager wants to find out if any particular size might catch and kill more fish than others in case the National Marine Fisheries Service lists sturgeon as endangered.

Without the science to support the use of gill nets, Virginia's commercial striped bass fishery and others could be limited or seriously disrupted under endangered species law, Hager said.

So far, Hager's survey has received reports of 25 sturgeon caught and released by watermen in the bay and ocean this year. But that run ended yesterday when Place and the two other James River watermen found a dead sturgeon in one of their nets.

Survey workers are also tagging the released fish so their movements along the Atlantic Coast can be better documented. DNA samples are also being taken from the captured sturgeon to determine if the fish share a homogeneous gene pool or harbor genetic differences based on where they spawn. Many young sturgeon found in the bay, Musick said, actually are wanderers from New York's Hudson River population, which has a relatively healthy spawning run.

Experience suggests that a hatchery breeding program could help boost the bay's sturgeon population.

Scientists used hatcheries to jump-start the bay's declining striped bass population in the mid-1980s. Today, the species probably the top sports and commercial fish in the bay -- is at record abundance.

Hatcheries have also played a role in propagating American shad for the bay's ongoing shad recovery program.

Sturgeon are so odd-looking they beggar the imagination. Rows of bony scutes protect their olive-colored hides and make them as rugged as steel-belted tires and as ancient-looking as stone. "This genus goes back 80 million years," Musick said.

Years ago, a 10-foot-long sturgeon washed up dead in the James, Spells said.

Many uncertainties exist over the fate of the species as a whole in the bay. Sturgeon probably need cleaner water than any fish in the bay and are especially sensitive to dissolved oxygen levels. That is bad news because pollution leaves whole reaches of the bay devoid of oxygen and sturgeon spend their critical juvenile years in the estuary.

Spells said it would be only fair for mankind to step in and rescue the fish.

Sturgeon, after all, rescued the colonists at Jamestown just as those settlers emerged from their first winter.

When the good-tasting sturgeon surged into the James in the spring of 1608, they officially ended what came to be known as The Starving Time.
 
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