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Giant sturgeons spotted in the James downtown

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Sturgeons can top 10 feet in length, but the bone-plated bottom feeders pose no threat to people.

A mild-mannered river monster has returned to downtown Richmond.

Atlantic sturgeons, giant fish that once swam with dinosaurs, have been gathering this week in the James River by the Mayo Bridge.

One expert says the area just upstream of the bridge's southern end — where the rapids, or falls, end and the tidal James begins — may be the long-sought spawning area of the mysterious fish.

"That's where I believe the magic is happening," said Virginia Commonwealth University researcher Matt Balazik. "I think (spawning) is all mostly happening at the fall line."

A few people, including Balazik, have seen a few sturgeons in that area since 2009. And there have been other, hard-to-verify reports in recent years.

But the sightings seemed to peak this week as witnesses reported seeing three to four sturgeons estimated at 6 to 7 feet long in the clear water on Sunday just before dusk, and two fish, including an estimated 6-footer, about the same time Monday.

The witnesses — more than a half-dozen over the two days — included Ralph White, manager of the city's James River Park; Chris Hull, a longtime river paddler; Mike Ostrander, a veteran river guide; and Lynda Richardson, Ostrander's wife and a well-known wildlife photographer. Richardson photographed one of the fish.

"Now I can retire," said White, who has worked along the river more than 30 years. "This is the culmination of my career."

Sturgeons can top 10 feet in length, but the bone-plated bottom feeders pose no threat to people. According to legend, young Indians rode them to show their manhood.

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Sturgeons were once common in the Chesapeake Bay region, but they were fished nearly to extinction more than century ago for their caviar. In the 1800s, fishermen reportedly tied giant sturgeons to the Mayo Bridge before selling them. Pollution apparently made it hard for the fish to make a comeback.

A decade ago, some scientists thought the fish had virtually disappeared from the James. In recent years, however, scientists have found evidence, including baby sturgeons, that a remnant population is not only surviving in the James but reproducing.

Sturgeons live in the ocean most of the time, and it was thought that they returned to the rivers of their birth in spring to spawn.

In mid-September, however, VCU's Balazik and his brother Martin captured a estimated 9-foot-long female sturgeon in the James off Hopewell. Balazik took pictures of the fish releasing eggs. He called that proof, after many years of searching, that the fish are spawning in the James in the fall.

"We got the pictures that we needed," Balazik said. "There's no ifs, ands or buts about it now."

Fall spawning, Balazik said, "was considered a big joke a couple of years ago."

The Richmond sightings since 2009 were backed up by tracking data from tags put in captured fish. The data showed sturgeons moving upriver of the Mayo Bridge.

That area, Balazik said, is "just acres and acres of prime, flushed water" — a perfect spot for spawning.

A lot remains unknown about James River sturgeons, and one of the biggest mysteries is the precise location of their spawning grounds. Balazik is working to pin that down.

Hull, the paddler, said the fish that he, 10-year-old son Isaac and at least three others saw Sunday were "just monstrous."

"To have the sturgeon come back to Richmond is just phenomenal," Hull said, and "a great statement of the progress we have made" in cleaning the river.

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