In a normal winter where temperatures are near or below freezing with regularity and water temperatures regularly approach the freezing point in southern Virginia, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science Juvenile Finfish and Blue Crab Trawl Survey (Trawl Survey) encounters relatively few of Chesapeake Bay’s warm weather visitors. This past winter was somewhat different. During December, January and February, crews reported seeing Weakfish, Sheepshead, Silver Perch, Spotted Seatrout (Speckled Trout), Striped Searobin, and both Red and Black Drum. While not always associated with the thermal maximum, these species are more prevalent in the warmer periods of the year as opposed to the dead of winter. Time will tell whether this year was just an anomaly or whether we will be seeing these fish during winter as a normal occurrence due to changes in climate.
As is normally the case this time of year, Trawl Survey scientists did report very large White Perch throughout the major Virginia tributaries. The largest of these fish (10”-12”) were captured in the York River from Bells Rock downstream to Purtan Island and in the Rappahannock River near the mouth of LaGrange Creek. Relatively large Blue Catfish (up to 20 lbs) were seen in the vicinity of the Tribell Shoal Channel in the James River as well as near the downriver end of the Dancing Point Shoal Channel. The largest individual brought to the deck was a 42 lb. specimen that was greater than 37 inches long.
As of April 6, 2012, the Atlantic Sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrhynchus) will be listed as an Endangered Species and as such will be granted special regulations regarding interactions between humans and these ancient fish. Listing is usually seen as a “last ditch” effort to restore populations to viable levels and governmental agencies are mandated to do whatever is within their powers to ensure that this happens and that inadvertent interaction with these animals is limited. Atlantic Sturgeon are members of an ancient family of fishes (Acipenseridae) that predate the rise of the dinosaurs. They are characterized by being anadromous , having a mostly cartilaginous skeleton, 5 major rows of large external bony scutes (plates) and a ventral protrusible mouth with 4 long barbels. They may exceed 50 years in age and grow to 14 feet and weigh more than 600 lbs. Until recent times, they were highly sought for consumption of the flesh as well as the roe which is used to make caviar. A bright spot in an otherwise gloomy forecast for these fish is that the Trawl Survey identified several young-of-the-year Atlantic Sturgeon from trawls in the Pamunkey River in December 2011 and January 2012. This is concrete evidence that adult sturgeons are returning from sea to spawn in the York River system which had not been well documented with physical evidence for a number of years.