Defense Date


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Science


Environmental Studies

First Advisor

Greg Garman

Second Advisor

Stephen McIninch

Third Advisor

Jennifer Krstolic


Substrate composition plays a critical role in determining the spawning success of Atlantic sturgeon. A benthic analysis of the tidal freshwater portion of the James River, Virginia, was performed to locate and protect remaining sturgeon spawning habitat within the James River system. I modeled structural habitat, substrate distribution, and river bathymetry from Richmond, Virginia to the Appomattox River confluence. A classification model was developed to describe the dominant substrate type (mud/silt, sand, gravel, bedrock) using side scan sonar data collected from August 2011-Febuary 2012. River depth, bottom imagery, substrate density (hardness), and ground truth substrate samples were interpolated into a GIS model to spatially describe and quantify essential sturgeon spawning habitat. Finally, I attempted a change analysis of historical substrate composition throughout the study area. Gravel, cobble, and bedrock, swept clean of silt or mud, was deemed a hard bottom substrate suitable for spawning success. Mud and silt dominated the vast majority of river substrate, representing approximately 67 % of river bottom surveyed. Sand comprised 17 % of river bottom, gravel represented 11 % and bedrock represented 5 %. Sixteen percent of the reach was hard bottom habitat consisting of a bed substrate dominated by gravel, cobble, or bedrock. Regions of hard bottom habitat found at depths ≥ 10 m were selected to model essential sturgeon spawning habitat. The river bottom within the reach contained approximately 8 % essential spawning habitat. The majority of hard bottom habitat was located in major bends of the river where scouring occurs. The historical comparison of available hard bottom habitat identified a 28 % loss of hard bottom since 1853. The greatest losses in hard bottom occurred in the upper portions of the study area (55 % loss in hard bottom habitat). Hard bottom habitat lost in the lower portion of the study area was partially offset by the creation of new hard bottom habitat within the narrow channel cuts bypassing Jones Neck and Turkey Island. Historical comparison of the Hatcher Island, Turkey Island, and Jones Neck oxbows identified heavy siltation and reduced depths likely due to anthropogenic alterations in the meander bends linked to shipping channel creation. The altered flow regime has resulted in increased sedimentation and has drastically reduced available hard bottom substrate within the natural channel of Jones Neck and Turkey Island. The increased availability of hard bottom habitat within the confines of the shipping channel has indicated that the alteration of the river bottom, through flow modification and dredging practices, may have replaced a portion of lost historical spawning habitat. Fisheries managers could use the data from the substrate analysis to better understand and protect essential areas necessary for Atlantic sturgeon spawning success.


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Is Part Of

VCU University Archives

Is Part Of

VCU Theses and Dissertations

Date of Submission

August 2012