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The Potential for Vessel Interactions with Adult Atlantic Sturgeon in the James River, Virginia

Balazik, Matthew T., Reine, Kevin J., Spells, Albert J., Fredrickson, Charles A., Fine, Michael L., Garman, Greg C., McIninch, Stephen P.
North American journal of fisheries management 2012 v.32 no.6 pp. 1062-1069
Acipenser oxyrinchus, adults, boats, death, endangered species, fish, freshwater, males, monitoring, mortality, researchers, rivers, shipping, ships, telemetry, Virginia
In 2012, all populations of Atlantic sturgeon Acipenser oxyrinchus oxyrinchus were listed as either threatened or endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. During 2007–2010, researchers documented 31 carcasses of adult Atlantic sturgeon in the tidal freshwater portion of the James River, Virginia. Twenty-six of the carcasses had gashes from vessel propellers, and the remaining five carcasses were too decomposed to allow determination of the cause of death. The types of vessels responsible for these mortalities were not explicitly demonstrated. Most (84%) of the carcasses were found in a relatively narrow reach that was modified to increase shipping efficiency. To explore the number of Atlantic sturgeon being hit and their horizontal and depth distributions in relation to vessel draft, we conducted telemetry experiments on three living fish (all males) and six dead specimens. While staging (holding in an area from hours to days, with minimal upstream or downstream movements), the adult male Atlantic sturgeon spent most (62%) of the time within 1 m of the river bottom. Assuming that behavior is not modified by vessel noise, adult male Atlantic sturgeon in the James River would rarely encounter small recreational boats or tugboats with shallow drafts; instead, mortalities are likely caused by deep-draft ocean cargo ships, which have drafts that coincide with the distribution of the tracked adult males. Dead specimens (n = 6) drifted with the current for several hours to almost 4 d before beaching at distances ranging from 0.5 to over 50 river kilometers from the point of release. We estimated that current monitoring in the James River documents less than one-third of vessel strike mortalities. A better understanding of Atlantic sturgeon behavior in the presence of vessels will aid in restoring this federally endangered species.