Washington and Oregon fish and wildlife officials are closing all sturgeon fishing July 18 after dozens of the monstrous fish showed up dead in the Columbia River.
The recommendation came during a state meeting of the Columbia River Compact. More than 80 dead sturgeon have been found in two weeks, many in recent days, upstream of the Bonneville Dam with several reports coming out of the Mid-Columbia.
The new emergency restrictions affect the river upstream of Bonneville Dam, the lower Snake River and adjacent tributaries.
More fishing restrictions also were announced for 30 rivers throughout the state to help protect drought-stressed fish.
Initial proposals called for closing the sturgeon season July 19, but some wildlife officials, including John Easterbrooks, the regional manager for the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife in Yakima, pushed for a quicker end to the sturgeon season.
“They’re dropping like flies in the Hanford Reach,” Easterbrooks told the Herald.
The specific cause of the die-off, which appears to be striking older fish that are 5 feet long and bigger, isn’t clear.
Dead sturgeon that have been autopsied appear to have been recently in good health, but also with bellies full of sockeye salmon, Easterbrooks said.
Such heavy feeding drives up a sturgeon’s metabolism and increases their demand for oxygen. Water temperatures in the river are higher than are typical for this time of year, reducing available oxygen for fish.
Wildlife officials are still investigating the die-off, but rapid decomposition of the corpses is expected to make that difficult, a state report said.
“Sturgeon are clearly under a lot of stress due to current drought conditions right now,” said Guy Norman, the state wildlife agency’s regional director for Southeast Washington, in a release.
The age of the dying fish, which can live to be 100, is raising particular concern.
Losing breeding-age fish could damage the population for years to come, not just this season, said worried wildlife officials.
Typically, sturgeon can only be fished above the Bonneville Dam in Washington and kept if they are from a little more than 3 feet to 4.5 feet long, depending on where you are in the river, according to state fishing regulations.
However, even catching and releasing the fish can negatively affect them.
“Mother Nature is punishing the fish, we don’t need to add fishing stress to that,” Easterbrooks said.
The restriction on sturgeon fishing is the latest to come down as several fish populations have suffered through this year’s drought.
Fishing was curtailed on a section of the Sol Duc River to protect returning chinook salmon. Low flows on the Grande Ronde River led officials to close that waterway to spring chinook fishing.
A full list of the other fishing restrictions can be found online at www.tricityherald.com.