The End of the Fall Spawning Run

The end of the fall spawning run is here. The sturgeons are all swimming back down the rivers and out into the Atlantic Ocean. Many of our tagged fish have left the Pamunkey River and some have already swam past VIMS. We had a good season, tagged 9 fish in 9 days of gillnetting. We ended our tagging season a little early, but it allowed us more time to actively track the tagged sturgeon. During the peak of the spawning season, tagged fish were spread out from Williams Landing to several miles above the 360 bridge. It appears there may be several locations in that stretch of the river where females release their eggs.

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Dr. Eric Hilton releasing a tagged sturgeon

Unfortunately, I cannot give any details on the sturgeon of the Mattaponi River because another year has passed where we did not tag a single Mattaponi sturgeon. This will be remedied next year with an increase in effort and the expanding knowledge I receive from everyone’s breach reports. Speaking of breach reports, a gigantic THANK YOU goes out to everyone that participated. In one year, we received over 40 reports of sturgeons breaching (see the map at the bottom of this webpage: Most of them came from the Mattaponi and Pamunkey Rivers, but we also received reports from the York, James, and Chickahominy Rivers. It makes me very happy to know that we have a community of river dwellers willing to join in the hunt for this endangered species. There are still some adults within the river systems, so keep an eye out and keep reporting those breaches.

So what’s next for me? I will continue to monitor our acoustic receiver array, begin to analyze the 10,000+ lines of data acquired from our tagged fish, and prep for the winter/spring season of sub-adult sturgeon tagging. Please stay tuned to the blog, I promise now that things have quieted down, to write more often.

Keep your eyes on the water,


First Spawning Female Caught on the Pamunkey!!!!

Let me set the scene before starting this story. An overcast day, nice weather for August, but we have fished for 30 hours over the last 3 days with not a single fish of any species to show for our efforts. When constantly pulling up nets with nothing in them, one becomes very disheartened and I didn’t want to end the week with a big zero. We had just finished fishing one net, with again nothing to show for our efforts, when we begin to pull the anchor for the 2nd net. All of a sudden, the water becomes alive! WooooHooooo fish in the net! At this point, I’m just excited to break our streak of nothingness. But as we approach to where the fish is, my excitement grows to pure delirium, the head on this fish is enormous and I can’t see the tail. I knew instantly, we were finally lucky enough to catch a female. Luckily, the fish was well wrapped in the gillnet, but not wrapped around her gills. She was ab

le to breathe with ease and we could take a second or two to gather up our strength and pull the beast into the boat. We mustered up all the strength we had and after several attempts got her into the vessel. Wow this fish was huge; she was a hair under 8 ft and easily weighed over 200 lbs. We were able to get her into the tank (which is also 8 ft. long) and outfit her with an acoustic tag that will hopefully help lead us to the spawning grounds. With help from a very nice bystander, we were able to release the fish, and take a second to reflect on something not many people get to see. That was not the largest fish I have ever seen, but it was by far the most amazing thing I have ever witnessed on the Pamunkey River. After taking a moment to catch our breath, we went straight back to work. We fished 5 more nets and tagged another 5 ft. male. This brings our total to 6 for the season. Keep your eyes glued to the rivers, there are big fish out there!


8 ft. 200+ lb female Atlantic sturgeon completely filling up our tank. (Photo credit Pat McGrath).

Three More Males

Hello everyone! I’m writing this blog from the Pamunkey River, where most of my time is spent these days. I’m getting many reports of breaching sturgeon both here in the Pamunkey and the Mattaponi River. We caught and tagged three male sturgeon last week, bringing our total to four on the Pamunkey. All of the males are running ripe, preparing to spawn somewhere upriver. Hopefully, we can use the signal from the tags and find the exact area. We have not had any luck on the Mattaponi, but with the help of breach reports maybe we can zero on their location. I will check back in next week. Until then, keep your eyes on the rivers!



Pat holding a 5 ½ foot male sturgeon (Photo credit: Indi Kelly)


First one of the season

The first sturgeon of the Fall 2014 season has been caught, tagged, and released. On August 7, we caught a 6 ft. Atlantic sturgeon in the Pamunkey River. We guessed it weighed about 100 lbs, but while lifting it into the boat, it might as well have been 500 lbs. The surgery was very successful and the patient swam away shortly after being released. We will be back fishing this week, on both the Pamunkey and the Mattaponi Rivers. Hopefully, we will get to see many more of these amazing fish. -Pat McGrath


Atlantic sturgeon swimming under our aeration device.


They’re Back!!!!

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Head of a beluga sturgeon (approximately 2 feet long) and several gulf sturgeons being preserved in a VIMS coffin

The adults have started to return (well actually they have been returning since April), but in the last few weeks I have had several breaching reports. I received a call last week from the Pamunkey River and one earlier this week about a large adult at the mouth of the York River. I am beginning preparations for the fall tagging season; nets are being made, surgical tools and acoustic tags ordered, and I am assembling a small army of volunteers, students, and staff. I just cannot wait until the temperatures begin to drop and it is safe to gillnet for them.

In other sturgeon news, Dr. Eric Hilton went on a trip south to bring back several specimens of Gulf sturgeon (a sub-species of our Atlantic sturgeon) from the USGS lab in Gainsville, Fl and a large head of a beluga sturgeon from Sturgeon Aquafarms in Miami, Fl. All of the specimens will be preserved and placed in the VIMS ichthyology collection. The beluga sturgeon is well known for its caviar and has been commercially over-fished to the point it is now listed as critically endangered. It historically existed in the Caspian, Black, Azov and Adriatic Sea basins, but due to dams and over-fishing has been extirpated from both the Adriatic and Azov Seas. The largest beluga sturgeon recorded was in 1827, weighing 3,400 lbs and was 24 feet long.

Off Season Report

A few weeks ago, our spring tagging season came to an end. We tagged 44 Atlantic sturgeons this spring. A very successful field season, if I do say so myself. My focus now has switched to preparing for the fall tagging season and downloading/maintaining the receiver array. Downloading the receivers is always fun because that is when I get to see if any of the tagged sturgeon have swam past. So far, I have had 5 fish that were tagged in the James enter the York River, one even briefly entered the Mattaponi River.


6 ft. Atlantic sturgeon washed up on Buckroe Beach. Sorry for the blurry picture, it was too sunny for me to notice the lens was smudged.

Another facet of my job, which is not as enjoyable, but necessary, is to examine dead sturgeons that wash up on shore. Today, I spent my morning at Buckroe Beach examining a 6 ft sturgeon. Unfortunately, the fish was too decomposed to get a definitive cause of death, but I was able to record morphometrics (lengths) and get a fin clip for genetic analyses. If you see a recently dead sturgeon, (if it is too decomposed, there is nothing for me to do) you can report it by either emailing me ( or call (804-684-7863). And don’t forget to keep your eyes out for breaches, which can be reported via our online reporting page (

A Tag for All Seasons

Hello everyone, as I write this I am aboard the R/V Shearwater (a 18 ft skiff) watching my nets soak on the Mattaponi River. I have had 2 reports of sturgeon breaching near Aylett, VA and 1 on the Pamunkey River near the reservation over the last 2 weeks. This past week we have also tagged 2 subadults on the James and helped our counterpart at VCU, Matt Balazik tag a 5 ft adult.

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One of our ultrasonic acoustic tags

This is my third blog and I have yet to explain these magical tags. The tags are “ultrasonic acoustic tags” and they are called this because they emit an extremely high pitched signal (way above human hearing). This signal is picked up by an array of receivers located in the rivers and Chesapeake Bay. The signal contains several pieces of data:  the fish’s unique number, time, date, and sometimes depth of the fish. These tags will last 10 years or more, allowing us to track each fish for a large portion of their life. When we download the data from the receivers, we can begin to piece together movements and habitat preferences.

Now it’s time for me to get back to fishing. Remember to keep your eyes on the water and report any and all breaches.


What’s in the News?


Tagging the sturgeon

It has been a great week for sturgeon tagging. We tagged 8 individuals this week. Luckily, Tamara Dietrich and Joe Fudge from the Daily Press were out with us. The article should come out in Thursday’s paper (April 24th), but the video can be found here:

I thought we were going to get skunked when the press was on board, luckily there was a sturgeon in the last 300 feet of the last net. We are also beginning to see the 5-7 foot sturgeon arrive in the James River (have not landed one yet) and I have received a report of one breach in the Pamunkey River. Don’t forget, if you see a sturgeon breach in the Mattaponi, Pamunkey, or York Rivers do not hesitate to contact me (


Sturgeon Chronicles

Hello everyone and welcome to a blog following the adventures in sturgeon research at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. This blog will document several avenues of sturgeon research that is ongoing at VIMS, from taxonomy and genetics, to ecology and physiology. Most of the entries will be written by myself, Dr. Pat McGrath, and follow my progress acoustically tagging and tracking Atlantic sturgeon, but from time-to-time you may here from VIMS professor Dr. Eric Hilton or his graduate student Katie May Laumann.


Sub-adult Atlantic sturgeon caught and tagged in March on the James River.

The purpose of this blog is twofold. Our first goal is increase public awareness of Atlantic sturgeon by showing you what happens behind the scenes of our ongoing research. Currently, Eric and I are acoustically tagging and tracking sub-adult Atlantic sturgeon in the James and York Rivers and adult Atlantic sturgeon in the Mattaponi and Pamunkey Rivers. This is part of a large, collaborative project that is funded by a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) awarded to Eric Hilton and his colleagues from VCU, VDGIF, UMCES, and MdDNR.  In subsequent blogs, I will further describe the acoustic tags, how we catch our fish, and what is involved in our attempts to understand the movements and habitats associated with Atlantic sturgeon.

The second goal is to get feedback from the public about Atlantic sturgeon in the York River system (York, Mattaponi, and Pamunkey Rivers), especially involving breaches. Atlantic sturgeon have been known to completely jump out of the water, similar to whales or dolphins. This video of Gulf sturgeon is a great example of sturgeon breaches:

It is unclear as to why this behavior occurs, but presently the best hypothesis is that it serves as a form of communication.  It would help us tremendously if you report any breaches witnessed in the York, Mattaponi, or Pamunkey Rivers to me, Pat McGrath ( This will guide us in our understanding of where they are located in the rivers and at what time of year.

Thank you for visiting our blog, I hope to continue to update it hopefully weekly, but at least monthly. I hope you enjoy the forth-coming stories of our research, and I look forward to hearing your “sturgeon stories.”

Pat McGrath