Return of the Ghost Fish

The Atlantic sturgeon is back.

When he tagged his 2,000th Atlantic sturgeon in May, “sturgeon general” Matt Balazik marked an exciting milestone. Balazik, founder of the sturgeon program at VCU’s Rice Rivers Center, produces the data that guides the fish ecologists dedicated to its restoration and protection. 

Decimated by the caviar “black gold rush” of the late 1880s, along with centuries of overfishing, sturgeons became known as “ghost fish.” Even today, the fish remains on the federal endangered species list, despite recent population upticks. 

Once plentiful, sturgeon are credited with sustaining Jamestown’s settlers. Indian boys were said to rodeo-ride across rivers on the fish—which grow to 14 feet in length, weigh 800 pounds, and live for 60 years.  

Knows as “living dinosaurs,” sturgeon are believed to have first evolved 200 million years ago during the Early Jurassic period. With a vacuum-cleaner mouth, fused head shield, shark-like skin, lobed tail, and boney plate of armor, they look like an evolutionary grab bag of pieces and parts.  

Balazic uses transponders to produce real-time migration data as the sturgeon move along the Atlantic coast. And for sturgeon nerds, like a recent Virginia Anglers Club audience, his work to identify the genes that drive sturgeon spawning patterns is fascinating stuff.


This article originally appeared in the April 2023 issue.

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