KING WILLIAM — After 200 million years, one of the planet’s oldest fish species is apparently in no rush.
Reporters invited to a remote spot on the Pamunkey River to see a recently discovered population of Atlantic sturgeon — Jurassic-looking, armor-plated giants once thought to be extinct — were disappointed.
Bug bites: Too many to count.
But researchers staked out on the bank promise the fish are here, spawning beneath the surface on this narrow crook of the river, like whales hidden in a latte-colored bathtub.
The tales unfolded last month as dusk settled over the Pamunkey, a tributary of the York River, and a plague of mosquitoes descended on those waiting for a sturgeon to be snared in one of the nets strung across the water.
Remember that 10-footer that plowed through the net like it was nothing? The crew, tasked with wrestling fish into a 16-foot boat for quick research, was almost relieved that one got away. Everyone on this mission has battle wounds.
The sturgeon are toothless but, with a lifespan of 60-plus years, they can grow to 800 thrashing pounds.
“It’s like being hit with a spiky baseball bat,” said Chris Hager, whose company, Chesapeake Scientific, is helping with the study.
Jason Kahn, a biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, had the nail ripped off a big toe by the edge of a scute — the bony plates that run in rows along a sturgeon’s body.
“That was the last time I wore flip-flops out here,” Kahn said.
Sturgeon — there are about two dozen types — once teemed in the waterways of Europe, Asia and North America.
Jamestown colonists used to wade out and club them. Powdered sturgeon, ground from smoked fish, helped the colony survive the infamous winter of 1609, known as “The Starving Time.”
But a slow-blooming maturity coupled with the bad luck of tasting good — including eggs prized for caviar — made sturgeon vulnerable to overfishing.
By the early 1900s, they were endangered just about everywhere, with some varieties feared vanished forever.
Hoping it wasn’t too late, Virginia put a moratorium on sturgeon fishing in 1974. Fortunately, enough holdouts had survived. Now, aided by other state and federal bans, the fish — most roam coastlines, moving inland to spawn in freshwater — are making a comeback.
Small populations now ply a number of rivers, each group with a distinct genetic coding that drives it to spawn where its members were hatched. The males return every one to three years, the females every three to five.
By the early 2000s, spawning sturgeon were being spotted in the James River. Juveniles have been tracked in the Elizabeth River. The Pamunkey group was discovered in 2013.
Since then, Kahn has spent much of his summers pulling nets across the same bend in the cool, spring-fed waters of the Pamunkey — a 90-mile meander that starts near Richmond and feeds into the York River at West Point, a small paper-mill town surrounded by farm fields, marsh and pines.
From what scientists can tell, the Pamunkey group includes about 300 adults that show up for a six- to eight-week spawning season. The research encampment — where the river is only about 250 feet across and 25 feet deep — is the perfect place to ambush the fish for tagging, measuring, DNA sampling and the like.
Kahn did not want to broadcast the spot’s exact location. The curious might head up here hoping to find one of these living fossils, one of the few creatures that has survived virtually unchanged for millions of years. Such encounters can go badly.
For unknown reasons, sturgeon — normally bottom-feeders — occasionally leap from the water to flop back on the surface with a loud slap. A 5-year-old Florida girl was killed in July when a sturgeon landed in her family’s boat.
But more often, the fish are on the losing end. Many of the sturgeon netted here — the biggest was about 300 pounds — bear scars from boat propellers. A sliced-up carcass washes ashore every now and then.
Kahn abandoned his lawn chair, where he rests between hourly net checks. Hoping to stir up some action, he grabbed a paddle, walked to the edge of the river and slapped the surface.
Sometimes the noise will make the big fish move. Not today.
But they’re under there, somewhere. At this bend, researchers have embedded more than 100 sturgeon with telemetry tags. More than 1,000 have been tagged by others along the coast.
Once they get a basic head count, researchers will move on to other questions: Why, for instance, are only adults found in the Pamunkey? Are all the babies winding up in the bellies of blue catfish, an invasive species introduced in the 1970s?
One question they’ve already answered, at least for themselves: Why should we bother to save the sturgeon?
For one thing, it’s a “keystone” species that alters its environment. Without these massive fish “plowing the field” as they once did in vast numbers, river and sea bottoms become compacted, and who knows what that does?
For another thing: “Sturgeon have been around — just like they are — since before the time of T. rex,” Hager said. “In a changing world, that’s pretty impressive.”