James River, Virginia, Essential Sturgeon Habitat Mapping Project

Atlantic sturgeon live in the ocean but spawn in tidal freshwater. This species has been extirpated throughout most of its original range from overfishing and habitat loss, but the James River, Virginia, still maintains a viable spawning population. In February 2012, the Chesapeake Bay population segment of Atlantic sturgeon was listed as "endangered" under the Endangered Species Act by NOAA Fisheries.

In 2006, a tagging program was initiated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Environmental Laboratory, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Virginia Commonwealth University, Virginia Institute of Marine Science-Virginia Sea Grant, and commercial watermen. Both active and passive acoustic telemetry have been used to identify the spatial distribution of sturgeon in the river and to infer preferred habitats. Areas of high-frequency sturgeon use were targeted with a suite of acoustic sensors to characterize habitat features that may be required to sustain viable sturgeon populations. The NOAA Chesapeake Bay Office used the Benthos C3D system to collect full-coverage bathymetry and low-frequency backscatter, and an Edgetech 4200 to collect high-frequency side-scan data. Numerous habitat features were identified, including mobile bedforms, ledge structure, and isolated gravel beds. Geographic information system (GIS)-ready bathymetry and backscatter products were delivered to fisheries researchers who will join tracking data with habitat imagery to identify sturgeon essential fish habitat.

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Acoustic backscatter (l) and multibeam bathymetry (r) in a James River channel cut

In addition to mapping work, the NOAA Chesapeake Bay Office supports research on sturgeon through B-WET grant funding of an educational project run by the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). Through the “Rivers in Real Time: Migration!” project, high school students and teachers analyze environmental parameters that influence sturgeon and other migratory fish populations along the Atlantic Coast. Students investigate real-time data from CBIBS and other online data sources, and a tracker on the James River CBIBS buoy identifies researchers when a tagged fish swims near that buoy.