Low sturgeon numbers may mean fishing cuts

Lower Columbia River sturgeon numbers are on the decline, with potentially 40 percent cuts in sport and commercial fishing looming for 2010 and beyond.

Brad James of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife told the Columbia River Recreational Advisory Group recently the estimated population of legal-size sturgeon (42 to 60 inches) dropped from 135,400 to 97,000 between 2007 and 2008.

The estimate for 2009 will not be complete until sturgeon tagged this year are recaptured in 2010.

James said while the estimate is not a hard and fast number, and could be as low as 71,700 or as high as 133,100 given statistical variances, the downtrend in the population between the ocean and Bonneville Dam is clear.

Add to the dwindling population estimate a decline in the catch-per-effort of legal-size sturgeon.

And then add an even steeper decline in the catch-per-effort of sublegal sturgeon (shorter than 42 inches) annually since 2004.

"The bottom end is falling out," James said. "We aren't getting fish moving up from the smaller sizes."

No one knows why the population is declining.

Smelt runs have crashed in the lower Columbia and they were a major sturgeon food source.

Then there is the influx of sea lions, especially near Bonneville Dam.

"One big change in the past five years are the sea lions in the Columbia Gorge," James said. "It (predation on sturgeon) started with Steller sea lions in 2005 and the take has just ratched up ... We're getting more and more reports of all size of sea lions taking all size of sturgeon in more places throughout the river. It appears the sea lions are learning from each other, not just the Stellers, but the Californa sea lions, too."

A three-year sturgeon management agreement for the lower Columbia River expired a year ago.

The states rolled over the 2006-08 agreement for 2009, but are working on a new multi-year pact.

Bill Tweit, Columbia River policy lead for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said a plan for sturgeon management needs to be adopted by the policy-setting state Fish and Wildlife Commission by January or February.

Public meetings will be scheduled before proposals go to the commission.

Sport and commercial fishermen have been allowed to kill 40,000 sturgeon a year since 2004, with the split 80 percent sport and 20 percent commercial.

Tony Nigro of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife said all aspects of sturgeon harvest will be on the table, including the sport-commercial allocation, the sharing of the sport catch between the estuary and rest of the lower Columbia, the harvest total, and the share taken in the lower Willamette River.

Butch Smith of the Ilwaco Charter Association and Steve Watrous of Columbia-Pacific Anglers both mentioned potential 40 percent cuts in fishing.

Larry Swanson of the Vancouver Wildlife League said the 40,000 sport-commercial harvest might fall into the 23,000 annual range.

Smith suggested the 80-20 sport-commercial sharing and the 60-40 split between the estuary and upstream continue.

He also wants the large and growing catch of sturgeon in the lower Willamette River fully accounted for in any future agreement.

"Conservation has to be No. 1," Watrous said. "We all know cuts are coming. We've got to do what we've got to do for the fish."

Watrous also said there will be a major fight unless Oregon requires sturgeon fishermen in the lower Willamette to shoulder their share of the cutback.

Harry Barber of the Coastal Conservation Association questioned the wisdom of the sport fishing targeting on spawning size sturgeon near Bonneville Dam.

"We've been fighting to eliminate the oversize fishery since 1984," Watrous said. "We even had the gillnetters on board since the start."

Other ideas for reducing sturgeon harvests included:

-- More closed days and larger closed areas.

-- Closing all fishing for sturgeon on non-retention days. Currently, catch-and-release angling is allowed on days when sturgeon cannot be kept.

-- Eliminating catch-and-release sturgeon fishing in August and September, when water temperatures are high and other fishing opportunities are available.

-- Providing more law enforcement in the Columbia Gorge.

-- Starting a hatchery program. Sturgeon hatcheries are long-standing in other parts of the world.

-- Starting the May-July spawning sanctuary near Bonneville Dam earlier in the year.

"Right now, we're pretty nervous about all the aspects of the white sturgeon population," Tweit said. "I don't think anyone is going to be happy with what sturgeon looks like next year, or the next several years."