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Research: Atlantic Sturgeon Spawning Habitat on the James River, Virginia

Principle Investigator:  Donna Marie Bilkovic, Funding Agencies (NOAA/NCBO and USFWS)

sturgeonThe Atlantic sturgeon is an anadromous species that migrates from the ocean into coastal estuaries and rivers to spawn.  In the Chesapeake Bay, Atlantic sturgeon historically spawned in all the major tributaries of the Bay.  Presently, spawning populations have been drastically reduced due to overfishing, pollution, dam construction and habitat degradation.  Low sturgeon population levels have hindered the location of viable spawning reaches through direct observation of habitat use within Virginia’s major tributaries, James, York, and Rappahannock.  However, anecdotal evidence and the capture of early juveniles indicate the possibility of successful spawning occurring in the James and York Rivers. Vital to the restoration of Atlantic sturgeon populations in Virginia, is an understanding of the quantity and quality of available suitable spawning and nursery habitat. 

Several habitat parameters are hypothesized to be essential for viable spawning, including salinity (salt front to the fall line), hydrodynamic complexity (e.g. eddies with fast moving flowing reaches), high dissolved oxygen (>4mg/L), and proper spawning substrate to facilitate adhesion of eggs.  The location of reaches of hard bottom benthic habitat which is a probable limiting factor for successful spawning (Bushnoe et al. 2005) will enhance Atlantic sturgeon restoration efforts.

LocatorMap-wApp Using acoustic surveys and specialized post-processing techniques (side-scan sonar, classification software and underwater videography), we identified suitable spawning substrate (rock, gravel, cobble) within the known range of historic spawning in the James River, Virginia.  Results are geo-referenced within Geographic Information Systems (GIS) allowing for the incorporation of additional habitat quality information to develop spatially-explicit habitat suitability models.

  • Assess the availability of suitable spawning habitat in the James River for Atlantic Sturgeon by characterizing benthic habitat with acoustic surveys within the known range of historic spawning.

  • Delineate and geo-reference the location of viable hard bottom spawning habitats for future evaluation with additional habitat quality information

Sonar image
Acoustic Data Processing


Benthic habitat
Benthic Mapping
Fish Observations
Fish Observations
Summary With Photo Gallery & Video Clip
Table Image
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