A Personal Stake

Matt Balazik grew up on the James River not far from Virginia Commonwealth University’s Inger and Walter Rice Center. He considers just about any day on the James to be a good one.

And a day involving a brush with an Atlantic sturgeon is even better.

Balazik, a doctoral candidate at Virginia Commonwealth University, is part of a research team at the VCU Center for Environmental Studies and VCU Inger and Walter Rice Center, studying the Atlantic sturgeon, a prehistoric fish species that has been around more than a million years and has been brought close to the brink of extinction.

“Atlantic sturgeons here [in the James] are the exception to the rule and are coming back strong,” said Balazik. Species-wise, there is evidence that their numbers are going up.

“We have to learn about it to help it comeback successfully to protect its spawning areas and help reduce the incidence of getting hit by boats,” he said.

Balazik and the VCU team are not alone in these efforts. There are a number of research groups along the Atlantic and federal agencies working hard to change the sturgeon’s fate by learning more about its life history and biology. The information and data they collect will help guide initiatives to best manage, protect and restore it to the coastal rivers of Virginia and elsewhere the fish is found.

Balazik is no stranger to the James. His family has been in the area for generations. He recalls his aunt talking about her grandfather catching small sturgeon in the early 1900s.

“Back when I was growing up, we didn’t see any fish [sturgeon], but through this effort we see they are coming back and we’ll be able to monitor their return,” he said.

It was during his master’s work at VCU when he saw Atlantic sturgeon breaching in the James. He’s been hooked ever since.

“Every time we’re out here, we catch one more fish, we make one more observation, we get one more tracking tag out, who knows when you’re going to have that one day, one fish that is going to break open everything and really make a forward advance into what we know and what we don’t know,” said Balazik.

Balazik recently co-authored a study with one of his mentors, Greg Garman, Ph.D., director of the VCU Center for Environmental Sciences, which provided evidence of fall spawning of the James River population. The findings of this research challenge a longstanding view that this species only spawn in the spring. Experts assume that there is spring spawning here in the James River, just as there is one in the Hudson River and in some of the few remaining other rivers with the fish.

Through population monitoring efforts, Balazik carefully captures, tags and returns the fish to the river, recording and collecting data on each fish.

The team is also examining genetic clips of the fish in the James River region and has found that this population – which likely has formed over thousands and thousands of years - is in fact different from other populations of sturgeon.

Balazik knows it will take generations for the sturgeon to recover, and it may not be in his lifetime, but is encouraged that he gets to play a role in contributing to the environment at large.

“I get a great feeling knowing I’m part of their recovery,” he said.

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Matt Balazik, doctoral candidate with the VCU Center for Environmental Studies with a 300-pound female Atlantic sturgeon in Sept. 2009.  This was the first female the team captured upstream on the James River.
Matt Balazik, doctoral candidate with the VCU Center for Environmental Studies with a 300-pound female Atlantic sturgeon in Sept. 2009. This was the first female the team captured upstream on the James River.