I was cruising down Virginia's James River, gliding past plantation houses and feeling the currents of history. As our boat motored over the choppy, gray water, my guide, Chuck Frederickson, told a story about Jamestown, the first successful English colony in North America. More than two thirds of the 214 settlers died in the harsh winter of 1609, during what they called the “starving time."
Then in the spring, the survivors saw something miraculous surging up the river: an armada of dinosaur fish, massive as logs, with bony armor, forked tails, sloped heads, and dangling whiskers. They were Atlantic sturgeon, returning up the James River to spawn. These fish can grow to 14 feet long and weigh 800 pounds.
“When they saw this huge influx of sturgeon coming back in, they said they could literally go out in the river and spear these fish with their swords," said Frederickson, the Lower James Riverkeeper. "It was a huge food source and it probably saved the colony from starvation."
Sturgeon are sometimes described as the “foundation fish," because they allowed the English to keep their tentative toehold in the New World, said Albert Spells, Virginia Fisheries Coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
"Sturgeon are animals that saved America," Spells said. "But for Atlantic sturgeon, we might be having this conversation in French or Spanish right now. So we stand on the backs of sturgeon."
Despite their historic significance, however, today, sturgeon are at risk of extinction. The National Marine Fisheries Service in October proposed protecting Atlantic sturgeon as an endangered species in the Chesapeake Bay region and elsewhere along the East Coast.
Fishermen in the late 19th and early 20th centuries massacred the passive, slow-reproducing giants for their eggs, better known as caviar. Dams blocked their passage upriver, and silt smothered their breeding grounds.
Catching sturgeon for commercial purposes has been illegal in Virginia since 1974, and in Maryland and on the rest of the East Coast since 1996.
Some watermen fear than an endangered status for sturgeon will mean that the federal government will impose sweeping new restrictions on what nets they can use for all kinds of fish, so sturgeon aren't caught accidentally. (Update: Endangered status was granted the Atlantic sturgeon in 2012.)
“That could have a catastrophic impact," said one Virginia waterman. "It could close most of Virginia's fisheries."
But Kim Damon-Randall, Endangered Species Coordinator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, said this fear is overblown.
"There may be times of year when they shouldn't set their nets, or in particular areas," Damon-Randall said. "But we wouldn't say that they couldn't fish at all. We would try to work with the fishermen to make sure they could still operation their fisheries but not take Atlantic sturgeon."
She added, however, that boat speed limits in the James River could be considered to protect sturgeon from being killed by boat strikes.
Paradoxically, some sturgeon researchers worry that an endangered status for the Atlantic sturgeon could impede efforts to save the rare animals. An endangered listing could make it harder for researchers to catch and release sturgeon, which they do to extract eggs and sperm, as part of efforts to help the fish reproduce.
"It will be difficult to continue our captive breeding program…under endangered status, and this project could come to an end," said Brian Richardson, who leads sturgeon restoration efforts for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
Damon-Randall countered that an endangerment listing would not shut down sturgeon research or restoration efforts. She said scientists would still be able to catch sturgeon, but they would have to get research permits.
Sturgeon have not spawned naturally in Maryland rivers in decades. Virginia's James River is the only confirmed place left in the Chesapeake Bay watershed where a breeding population of sturgeon remains.
In the James River south of Richmond, scientists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) are trying to help the last few hundred of these living fossils reproduce. Sturgeon need to lay their eggs on hard, rocky bottoms, so researchers directed barges to dump tons of granite into the river.
Sonic tracking devices have been attached to the fins of 100 sturgeon in the river. These monitors have sent signals–like sonar from submarines–that show the artificial reef is succeeding in attracting sturgeon, said Greg Garman, Director of Environmental Studies at VCU.
"Five or six years ago, most of the biologists assumed that sturgeon were extirpated–gone from the Chesapeake Bay," Garman said. "We now realize that there is a viable population in the James."
The hope is that building more nurseries for these sturgeon will allow them to someday repopulate the whole Chesapeake Bay and eventually the East Coast.
There are hints of hope for sturgeon elsewhere in the East. In the Gulf of Maine, for example, Atlantic sturgeon are moving into rivers where they have not been seen for a long time, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Any overall recovery for Atlantic sturgeon, however, is likely to be a slow one, biologists predict. The fish do not reach sexual maturity until they are 10 to 15 years old (they live up to 60 years) and they only spawn every two to three years.
But the construction of more spawning habitat in the James River could help. From this rocky, underwater cradle could rise the return of the ancient armada that saved Jamestown.