Sport and commercial fishers in 2011 are likely to see continued shrinkage of white sturgeon fishing opportunity in the lower Columbia and Willamette rivers due to estimated downturns in populations of the big fish.
Oregon and Washington department of fish and wildlife staffs during public and sport and commercial fishery advisory group meetings have suggested that a cut of nearly 30 percent in the overall lower river harvest allocation may be necessary to assure growth in the “legal size” portion of the population. Such a reduction in the joint sport-commercial allocation from 24,000 in 2010 to 17,000 fish in 2011 would follow a reduction of 40 percent from 2009 to 2010 (40,000 to 24,000).
The overall allocation in recent years has been split with the commercial fishery getting 20 percent and the sport fishery 80 percent. The sport allocation last year was further split with the estuary fishery (from river mile 40 at Wauna down to the river mouth) getting 60 percent and the Wauna-to-Bonneville fishery getting 40 percent.
The staff recommendations call for the Willamette sport share to be reduced by nearly 30 percent, from 3,600 in 2010 to 2,550 next year. Most of that total counts toward the above-Wauna allocation.
The primary objective of the fishery managers is to ensure adequate recruitment of legal-sized immature sturgeon into the over-legal-size, breeding population to maintain and/or increase the number of spawners. To maintain stable harvests, managers must also assure that the under legal-sized population remains strong to eventually feed into the legal-size population.
That has not been the case. The abundance of legal-size fish – from 42 to 60 inches total length or 38 to 54 inch fork length -- grew during 1991-1995, declined during 1996-1998 and then remained fairly stable from 1999 through 2007, according to agency estimates. But legal-size populations decreased in 2008 and 2009, and managers expected that trend to continue through 2011.
Sub-legal size fish population estimates increased in early 2000s with a peak reached in 2004. But that segment of the overall lower river (from Bonneville Dam 146 miles down to the Pacific Ocean) white sturgeon population has declined beginning in 2005.
A variety of factors are likely at play in addition to harvest impacts. Predation by sea lions has increased in recent years, particularly in the area immediately below Bonneville where white sturgeon are known to congregate in winter. There has also been a steep decline in populations of two of the sturgeon’s traditional food sources – smelt and lamprey.
The agencies met Oct. 26 with Columbia River sport and commercial fishery advisory groups and held a second meeting Thursday to discuss sturgeon populations and future fisheries. The two states hope to adopt a white sturgeon conservation plan, which is being developed by ODFW, as well as an “accord” of fishery management. Oregon and Washington jointly manage fisheries on the Columbia where the river represents the states shared border.
Public meetings were held this month in Longview, Wash., and Clackamas and Astoria, Ore., to explain possible sturgeon fishing scenarios. Fishery managers from both states presented the latest information about sturgeon population trends, fishery performance, and other factors they will consider when setting sport and commercial fishing seasons and harvest guidelines for the Columbia River in 2011-2013.
The Washington and Oregon commissions are expected to adopt sturgeon fishery policy guidance in January and February, respectively. Public input will be taken in February when Columbia River Compact and joint state hearings are held to set seasons. The Compact, which sets commercial seasons, is made up of representatives of the ODFW and WDFW directors.
The WDFW and ODFW have negotiated a series of joint state fishery management accords since 1996 that establish total allowable harvest, allocation between sport and commercial fisheries, specific sport and commercial fishery regulations and population monitoring programs. The current, one-year agreement expires at the end of the year.
Despite the fact that conservation plans are still in development and a revised accord (and associated harvest guideline and fishery protocols) will not be available until February, the Compact on Friday (today) OK’d 24-hour commercial fisheries on Jan. 18 and 25 and Feb. 1 and 8 from below Bonneville to the river mouth. A maximum of 10 white sturgeon may be possessed or sold by each participating vessel during each calendar week (Sunday through Saturday) that the fishery is open.
According to a fact sheet prepared by ODFW and WDFW staff for the Compact, both recreational and commercial sturgeon fisheries in the lower Columbia can commence in January 2011 with further action planned for February when management policies for 2011 have been decided. Because harvest is relatively small in both winter season commercial and recreational fisheries, the fisheries shouldn’t affect future policy decisions.
During five early season commercial fisheries in 2010, a total of 518 white sturgeon were landed.
The sport fishery in the area above Wauna is open for sturgeon retention three days per week and continues into 2011 with the same season structure, which will be reviewed at the Febr. 8 Compact hearing.
The fact sheet also noted that in the winter of 2010, ODFW observed a large aggregation of white sturgeon in a slough at Rooster Rock State Park between Sand Island and the Oregon shore. Sturgeon catch rates in this specific area were extremely high in the winter and spring, which jeopardized the 2010 season structure for the gorge fishery (above Wauna powerlines) so in April, the states took action and closed Sand Island slough to all angling through the month of July.
At a joint-state sport hearing also convened today, it was decide to close to angling from Jan. 1 through April 30 the area between the upstream end of Sand Island and a marker on the Oregon shoreline, downstream to a line between the lower end of Sand Island and a marker on the Oregon shoreline.
In a separate action the state of Oregon announced that the start of the Willamette River recreational sturgeon fishery will be delayed from Jan. 1 until after the Oregon commission has an opportunity to review the Columbia River white sturgeon population status. The Oregon commission is scheduled to meet in Jan. 7.