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Nature's Bounty State of the James River: Wildlife
Bald eagle
Bald eagle © Charles County

For the James River’s key fish and wildlife species, there were some gains and losses over the
past two years. Bald eagle populations continue to increase, making America’s Founding River quite
fittingly the most significant river in Virginia for our national symbol. Additionally, the American shad
population has shown signs of a comeback after an unexplained 3-year decline. Oysters and brook
trout continue to struggle at low levels relative to their historical populations. Both rock fish and smallmouth bass, which were at very healthy numbers within the past decade, declined over the past 2 years showing that even healthy populations are susceptible when the river ecosystem is out of balance.

Rockfish (aka Striped bass)
Smallmouth bass
American shad
Brook trout
State of the James Wildlife: Final Scores
James River Wildlife Report Card

Bald Eagle – 100% (No 2-Year Change)

Since the ban of the pesticide DDT and the passage of the Endangered Species Act in the 1970s, bald eagles have made a dramatic comeback. The number of breeding pairs in the James River watershed has risen to 174 in 2011. This represents a 13% increase from 2010 and keeps the population well above JRA’s benchmark goal of 120 pairs. The eagle population in the James has surpassed the Rappahannock and Potomac Rivers, making it the most significant river habitat for eagles in Virginia.

Rockfish – 76% (-6% 2-Year Change)

During colonial times, rockfish (striped bass) were plentiful in coastal rivers from Canada to Georgia. Overfishing, habitat loss and pollution resulted in a significant population decrease during the 1970s and 1980s. The population rebounded as a result of a fishing moratorium and careful management and was declared healthy in 1995. After a marked decline in 2007 and 2008, the spawning stock in the James is once again on the rise. The index for the James in 2010 was 20% higher than 2009. However, unusually high bacterial infections and sufficient forage fish are still concerns for the rockfish population. The 3-year average of the James River spawning stock is now at 76% of JRA’s benchmark.

Oysters – 11% (+3% 2-Year Change)

The Chesapeake Bay 2000 agreement called for a 10-fold increase in oyster populations from the 1994 levels. Despite continued restoration efforts, the 2010 oyster population is only at 11% of the James River’s goal. The oyster population is still plagued by disease and poor water quality. Oyster reefs provide important habitat for aquatic plants and animals and one adult oyster can filter 50 gallons of water per day. Ironically, these filter feeders struggle to survive in the murky waters of the James. Restoring a healthy oyster population could have a marked impact on the overall water quality of the bay and help restore essential underwater habitat.

Smallmouth Bass – 49% (-51% 2-Year Change)

Smallmouth bass fishing is extremely popular in the upper and middle James River. Recent years have shown a population decline in this prized recreational fish. In 2010, studies showed that the smallmouth bass population in the James was only at 49% of the benchmark goal. Several poor spawning years in the recent past are a major reason for the decreased numbers of small mouth bass caught in the annual surveys. Starting in 2007, the James River population has been subject to recurring fish kills in the upper James, although fewer affected fish were found in the last two years. While natural fluctuations affect the small mouth bass reproduction, the continued decline for several years warrants additional investigation. Regardless of the specific cause, better river health would help improve reproductive success and fish health.

American Shad – 42% (+29% 2-Year Change)

American shad was once one of the most abundant and important fish species in the James River. In 2008, populations declined to near all-time lows. However, in the past two years there has been a substantial increase in the James River American shad population. Preliminary data for 2011 indicates a 2-year increase of 29%, which puts the population at 42% of JRA’s benchmark. While still low compared to historic values, this increase is a positive sign for the American shad population after years of restocking efforts and removal of dams and river blockages.

Brook Trout – 45% (No 2-Year Change)

Brook trout are Virginia’s official freshwater fish and prized by fly-anglers. Because of their sensitivity to changes in water quality and temperature, they are an important indicator of aquatic health. Changes in water quality and competition with other species have dramatically reduced the brook trout’s range. Once thriving in 100 streams in the James River basin, they are currently only healthy populations in 9 stream systems and have been completely eliminated from 30 streams. The benchmark for this native species is to restore viable populations in 20 streams consistent with the Brook Trout Joint Venture. Achieving this goal will require protecting forested watersheds, replanting streamside buffers and reducing polluted runoff.

For more information visit James River Association


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For More Information, Contact:

Gabe Silver

James River Association

9 South 12th Street, 4th Floor

Richmond, VA 23219

Phone: 894-788-8811

[email protected]

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