A decade ago, some experts said the sturgeon was virtually extinct in the James. But in recent years, scientists have found evidence, including baby sturgeons, showing that a remnant population is not only surviving in the James but, against all odds, reproducing.
That's a huge discovery, because no one knows of another spot in the Chesapeake Bay region where sturgeons spawn. If the fish ever return to the bay, they will most likely come from the James.
To aid a sturgeon resurgence, scientists and conservationists from VCU, the James River Association, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other offices have been working on a shoestring budget the past few years to learn the habits of those in the James. Where do they spawn? Where do they spend time?
Answers could lead to protections such as restrictions on dredging or shipping during the spawning season.
One of the top researchers in the effort is Balazik, a tan, soft-spoken man with a Mohawk-and-ponytail-style haircut his wife gave him.
Balazik is a first-rate biologist who combines book learning with fishing skills he got by spending time with watermen, said Greg Garman, director of VCU's Center for Environmental Studies.
"He's VCU's sturgeon guy," Garman said. "He lives and breathes them."
Waterman Kelly Place calls Balazik "the Sturgeon Whisperer." Balazik "seems to have an uncanny ability to discover large numbers of big James River sturgeons unknown to scientists."
This is great. Sturgeon were an important food fish for early colonists all around the Cheapeake Bay, and their prolonged absence, and failure to rebound in most areas suggests that profound problems remain. If we can find out what makes the James an acceptable habitat and duplicate that elsewhere, we would go a long way towards Bay restoration.