Historical significance of the Atlantic sturgeon

There are a number of connections between the Atlantic sturgeon and Jamestown and the James River. The fish played a significant role in the lives of the early settlers and Native American tribes of the area.

1600s

The sturgeon was one of the few fish of the New World that the English colonists recognized because they are very similar to the species of sturgeon they knew from the Thames River. During, the 1600s it was illegal for anybody other than the King to take a sturgeon.

Approx. 1607

The first European colonists in Jamestown described a rite of passage observed in the Powhatan tribe, a local Native American tribe, in which the young men would climb on the back of an adult sturgeon in the James River and ride it a certain distance. Although the reports may have been embellished, the sturgeon certainly represented a very large unit of protein that would come into the river during the spring run – a time of year where people had not had protein for some time, so that the sturgeon’s arrival likely was a very important occurrence.

Winter of 1609-1610

Many of the archaeologists unearthing the history of the Jamestown colony in Virginia have called the sturgeon, “The fish that saved Jamestown.” During a period known as “The Starving Time,” it was the one food source available to the English colonists that kept them from perishing. Because of their familiarity with the sturgeon species from the Thames River in England, they knew how to catch and cook the fish. The English-speaking colonists were thought to have survived because of the sturgeon, so the fish played a critical role in the establishment of Jamestown. Some even speculate that Virginians might be speaking Spanish today if not for the Atlantic sturgeon, because without the fish for sustenance everybody would have perished in the English colony at Jamestown.

As the years passed, the Jamestown settlers raved about the sturgeon meat – described as “firm and sweet” – and wanted to find a way to send it back to England. If they could figure out how to preserve it for the three-month journey back to the England, then they would be rich. They tried various methods, including pickling and smoking, but they could not find a way to keep it edible during the three-month journey to the homeland.

1860 to 1900

The glory years for sturgeon harvest were between 1860 and 1900. Smoked sturgeon was a valuable commodity to sell to Boston and Chicago, and it was shipped all around the Eastern part of the country. Then the bottom dropped out. The peak harvest of sturgeon was in 1890. By 1920, there were not enough fish to support a fishery.  Overharvesting and the construction of dams in the river restricted and altered habitats. Fishing was not done in a sustainable way and the collapse proved dramatic.

Approx. 1925

Virginia banned harvesting sturgeon less than 4 feet long.

1974

A moratorium was issued on sturgeon harvest for all Virginia waters.

Early 1990s

In the early 1990s, experts believed the Chesapeake Bay population of Atlantic sturgeon to be extirpated,

Late 1990s

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission moratorium for Atlantic sturgeon in all U.S. waters began in 1998.

Now

A handful of research groups along the Atlantic, including the VCU research team, are investigating the biology and life history of the Atlantic sturgeon. Other groups are looking at Atlantic sturgeon populations in the Hudson River, Delaware River and the southern end of the sturgeon-range in Georgia.

Information from Greg Garman, Ph.D., director of VCU Center for Environmental Sciences and VCU Rice Center.

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A small Atlantic sturgeon on a measuring board.
A small Atlantic sturgeon on a measuring board.