Waters surrounding this park are rich with a large number of fish species that are harvested commercially for consumption. The York River is saltier than the James and supports different species. Shellfish nurseries and spawning sites for striped bass and spotted seatrout are abundant along the York River. A sunny afternoon will find local residents searching for crabs and clams from the pullout areas along the Colonial Parkway.
Almost 90 species of fish have been found along the James River and in the park’s freshwater streams and ponds, including shad, sunfish, and perch. The marshes around Jamestown Island serve as important spawning nurseries for striped bass, Atlantic croaker, summer flounder, white perch, and spot.
The populations of two migratory fish species – the American eel and Atlantic sturgeon —are showing severe decline in the Chesapeake Bay, suffering from overfishing and habitat degradation. Both species are found in the waters within and around the park, and scientists are trying to reverse the trend.
In colonial times, Atlantic sturgeon were abundant in the James River. John Smith declared there were "more sturgeon than could be devoured by dog and man". These fish can grow to measure more than 10 feet long, to weigh over 300 pounds, and to live over 50 years. Descendants of relatives that first appeared during the Mesozoic period, sturgeon look prehistoric with bony, armor-like plates instead of scales and a long snout used for detecting prey buried in the sediment bottom. They use their mouth like a vacuum cleaner to uncover and feed on their prey.
The populations of Atlantic sturgeon peaked in the late 1900’s and then began to decline, decimated by overfishing, pollution, and dams that blocked the sturgeons’ upriver course to breeding grounds. It has been unlawful to catch or possess these fish in Virginia since 1974. Now, to encourage breeding populations, researchers have constructed an artificial spawning reef for Atlantic sturgeon in the James River, where small populations of this fish had been identified.
The American eel is the only species along the east coast that spawns in the Sargasso Sea but lives in freshwater and portions of estuaries. For over a year, newly hatched larvae swim and float on ocean currents, and afterwards they migrate to rivers and freshwater streams of the Chesapeake Bay. It takes an average of 2–6 years for them to become adults. During that time, the eels undergo a remarkable transformation, first from tiny leaf-like larvae to "glass eels," and then from being "yellow eel" and finally "silver eels," the adult stage. Populations of glass eels are regularly sampled at three locations within Colonial National Historical Park.
Evidence is accumulating that American eels also represent a critical cog in a river’s ecosystem. These fish are carnivores, feeding on insects, crabs, worms, dead animal matter, and preying on undesirable shellfish. Further, studies have indicated that American eels may be essential to the development of the eastern elliptio, the most abundant freshwater mussel in many northeastern
rivers. In recent decades, populations of both the mussel and the eel have declined due to overfishing, infections by nonnative parasites, and dams that inhibit migration to habitats.
See the Virginia Institute for Marine Science updated research findings on fisheries in the Chesapeake watershed: http://www.vims.edu/research/index.php.
See a video that explains the complicated life of an eel and how they count and collect eels in the park: http://www.vims.edu/newsandevents/topstories/archives/2010/eel_survey.php
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