Continuing with the beer-themed mini-series, but stepping outside of the trout-sphere, this week I’m going behind the name of Hardywood Park’s Great Return. It’s not only a fish-themed beer, but a beer that supports fisheries conservation!
Those residing outside of the Old Dominion may not be familiar with the label, but Hardywood is a craft brewery rooted in Richmond, Virginia. Owned by two childhood friends, the brewery opened in 2011 and takes pride in brewing with local ingredients and renewable resources. Nestled in the historic German brewing district, Hardywood is the destination for anything from lively block parties to quiet afternoons in the garden.
IPAs are my flavor of choice, so ordering my first Great Return was a no-brainer when it was first released in 2013. I didn’t pay much attention to the name, and it was probably several months before I saw the label and realized it featured an American sturgeon. The Great Return is referencing one of the biggest comeback stories in fisheries, and that’s a cause I can drink to!
So, what’s so great about an American sturgeon return? American sturgeon is a large species of fish reaching nearly 10 feet in the length and weighing up to 300 pounds. They are also one of the oldest living species and it is believed they were swimming around at the same time dinosaurs were roaming the earth.
Despite surviving the same mass extinction that wiped out the T-Rex, Atlantic sturgeon was listed under the Endangered Species Act in 2012. There are two specific aspects of the species’ ecology that make it particularly vulnerable. First, it takes up to 20 years for a female sturgeon to be able to reproduce. In that 20 years a lot of things can happen, that kill the fish before it is able to reproduce. Most notably, a lot of sturgeon mortality could historically be traced to angler harvest. The first rapid decline in sturgeon populations was believed to occur during colonial times and into the 20th century when sturgeon caviar (eggs) were considered a delicacy and the species was overharvested. In fact, Atlantic sturgeon is believed to have largely prevented massive starvation of early settlers because the fish was large, plentiful, and easy to catch. Today Atlantic sturgeon harvest is illegal; however, adults are still at risk of fatal injury when accidentally caught and from being struck by boat propellers.
The other difficultly with Atlantic sturgeon conservation is that they require a wide range of habitats to complete their life cycle. They are a bit like salmon- when not spawning they live in saltwater in the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean, but when ready to reproduce they swim into freshwater rivers. Historically, these rivers would have been a safer spot to spawn because there are fewer things to eat the eggs and water currents are not as strong as in the open ocean allowing eggs are more comfortable place to develop. However, in modern times, dams block access to much of the spawning habitat and water quality is so poor that eggs and juveniles can suffocate in sediment-laden water.
The above paints the picture of Atlantic sturgeon populations in the James River which flows from the mountains of Virginia, through Richmond, and into the Chesapeake Bay. Historically the James River was home to one of the largest populations of Atlantic sturgeon. Today, it is estimated that only 300 adults occupy the James River every year, and they are all spawning in the same location. This spawning location is unfortunately placed in a section of the river with heavy boat traffic and is regularly dredged to make the river deeper and navigable by large commercial ships. Dredging not only displaces adult sturgeon, but suspends sediment into the water column making the water quality too poor to support Atlantic sturgeon.
It would appear that this story ends with having to choose between using the river to support sturgeon, or using the river for commercial hauling (Richmond has a deep history of maritime transportation dating back to the early 1600s that is still alive and well today). However, thanks to valiant efforts by The James River Association and research by university, state, and federal biologists, there are early indications that it may be possible to have both the ecologic and economic uses of the river. Detailed maps of spawning grounds have pinpointed critical areas in the river to protect, and more research on spawning behavior has identified spawning windows in fall and spring when sturgeon reproduce and water quality is of highest importance. Further, through the use of radio telemetry, biologists now have a better understanding of where sturgeon go within the river and the Chesapeake Bay. Together, this information has been used to form an adaptive management plan that minimize risks to sturgeon during critical life stages and protects a larger range of habitats used by the species.
It’s still early to tell how these management adaptations have effected long-term sturgeon population health, but the observation of more and larger sturgeon entering the James River to spawn has biologists excited about the future. Improved ecosystem management in the James River is a cause that Hardywood continues to support, and they contribute $10 per barrel of Great Return to the James River Association to not only support sturgeon recovery but James River ecosystem restoration.
So, your next drink may very well be saving the Atlantic sturgeon. Bottoms up!