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Further White Sturgeon Harvest Limits Likely; Population Declines Pose Threat To Fisheries Stability
Posted on Friday, December 30, 2011 (PST)

For a second straight year the traditional Jan. 1 opener for white sturgeon retention on the lower Willamette River in western Oregon, including Multnomah Channel and the Gilbert River, will be delayed because of an anticipated cut in the harvest quota.


And Oregon and Washington fishermen could be on a shorter leash this year in terms of the overall allocation of sturgeon harvest on the Columbia River mainstem below Bonneville Dam, which is located at about river mile 146.


“The populations did go down again,” the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Patrick Frazier said of a lower Columbia River trend that has been heading downhill since 2008.


The abundance estimate for legal-sized white sturgeon (38-54 inches fork length) downstream from Bonneville Dam in 2011 was about 7 percent less than in 2010.


“Although these declines raise concerns about the status of the population, especially in the near-term, our viability analyses indicate they are not large enough to elicit a conservation concern. However, they do pose a significant threat to fisheries stability,” according to an issue summary prepared by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife for the Jan. 6 Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission meeting.


Both the Oregon and Washington commissions will next week discuss the status of the mainstem Columbia white sturgeon population, and possible scenarios for sport and commercial fisheries in the New Year.


ODFW fishery managers will consult with the OFWC regarding 2012 sturgeon management during a Jan. 6 meeting. Based on commission guidance, dates for the retention season in the lower Willamette will be announced around mid-January.


According to John North, ODFW Columbia River fisheries manager, when the Willamette retention season does open in February it’s likely to be even shorter than the 12 day season in 2011.


“With the reduced catch quota and more anglers targeting Willamette River sturgeon, I expect the retention season to last just a couple of weekends,” he said. “However, the lower Willamette and other sturgeon fisheries are currently open to catch-and-release fishing all year.”


More details about the harvest quota and possible season structures on the lower Willamette will be available after the first of the year.


In the meantime, the Columbia River below Bonneville Dam and the reservoirs between Bonneville and McNary dams will open to white sturgeon retention by anglers on Jan. 1 under permanent rules.


The seasons below the Wauna power lines, which are located at about river mile 42, and in the three pools above Bonneville Dam will initially be open seven days a week while the area from Wauna upstream to Bonneville Dam will be open three days a week (Thursday-Sunday).


Final 2012 retention seasons for mainstem recreational white sturgeon fisheries will be discussed and set at a joint Oregon-Washington hearing on Jan. 26 to consider changes to current catch quotas and mainstem fisheries. The Columbia River Compact, which is made up of ODFW and WDFW officials, will that same day consider setting lower commercial white sturgeon fisheries.


Under the policy guidance adopted in the “Joint State Accord on 2011-2013 Columbia River Sturgeon Fishery Management,” the state fisheries management guideline is for an annual harvest of 22.5 percent of the projected abundance of legal-sized white sturgeon or 17,000, whichever is less.


In 2012, the projected abundance of legal-sized white sturgeon is approximately 65,000 (versus 87,000 in 2010 and 80,500 in 2011). At this abundance level, the harvest guideline cannot exceed 14,625 fish, according to the ODFW memo. That is 14 percent less than the 2011 guideline (17,000), 39 percent less than the 2010 lower river harvest allocation (24,000) and 63 percent less than the 2009 allocation (40,000).


Under the agreement, 80 percent of the harvest is allocated to recreational fisheries and 20 percent to commercial fisheries. The lower Columbia recreational harvest is further apportioned with 60 percent allocated to the area downstream from the Wauna power line, 25 percent allocated to the Columbia River upstream from Wauna and 15 percent allocated to the Willamette River.


The WFWC when it meets next week will consider closing sturgeon retention by anglers in Puget Sound, as well as its tributaries. The proposal is designed to protect Columbia River sturgeon that venture into Puget Sound to feed. Under the proposal, catch and release fishing for sturgeon would still be allowed.


The closure in Puget Sound, which has no resident white sturgeon population, would also aim to protect fish from British Columbia’s Frazer River. The white sturgeon population there has also been on a downward trend recently.


According to historic methods of estimating the legal-sized populations, sturgeon numbers have declined 34 percent over the past two years in the lower Columbia, according to the Coastal Conservation Association. The comprehensive 172-page Lower Columbia River Conservation Plan completed by ODFW staff concludes the harvest rate must be reduced to allow recovery.


Ending the winter sturgeon gill-net season is one small step to reducing harvest-related impacts on sturgeon that has serious conservation benefits for wild salmon and steelhead too, according to the sport fishing organization.


“It is an unneeded season, on fish that are in serious trouble,” said Bruce Polley CCA Oregon’s Government Relations Committee chairman. “Because this season is unnecessary to access the commercial quota, it results in an increase in discarded sturgeon in fall salmon/sturgeon gillnet fisheries.”


CCA has recently sent a detailed briefing document to ask ODFW and WDFW to stop the winter directed sturgeon gill-net fishery. The fishing group says a small percentage of the commercial gillnet quota is caught during this season typically executed in the January and February at a time when stocks of wild winter steelhead and spring chinook salmon that are listed under the Endangered Species Act are in the lower Columbia River. Most of the commercial catch of white sturgeon takes place in the summer and fall.


The CCA says ending the winter gillnet season will have no impact on the total commercial harvest of sturgeon, but will reduce unnecessary handling of sturgeon from gill nets and it will reduce the bycatch of ESA listed salmon and steelhead.


“Last year more spring chinook salmon were sold during this fishery as allowed by-catch than sturgeon. Another example of how non-selective gill nets are. This is an early salmon fishery disguised as a sturgeon fishery,” said Polley.


“Because it is considered a sturgeon fishery there are none of the normal safeguards that are in place during spring chinook seasons,” Polley said. Those “normal safeguards” include tangle nets that allow the release unharmed of a higher percentage of wild salmon, observers, maximum soak times for deployment of gill nets and recovery boxes that are intended to help revive netted fish before their release back into the river.


“We don’t have any way to know how many of the ESA-listed fish are handled because observers aren’t required but we do know that the large mesh nets being used result in a 40 percent mortality rate of released ESA listed fish,” Polley said.


“We hope to see the ODFW and WDFW commissioners direct their staffs to eliminate this fishery that is unneeded, and dangerous to our endangered wild fish stocks. They will be making that decision in early January, the CCA says


Alarmed over recent sturgeon population declines of up to 60 percent, conservation organizations such as CCA have urged the Oregon and Washington fish and wildlife commissions to reduce both recreational and commercial harvest. Further action is needed to recover populations, the CCA says.


The Oregon plan says that in order to rebuild the current population to a healthy and harvestable state, harvests should be capped at 16 percent of the legal-sized white sturgeon population in 2014 and beyond.


The fishing organization notes that all age classes of sturgeon, oversize, sub-legal, and legal, are negatively impacted by repeated handle and discard in gill-net fisheries.


CCA is a non-profit organization comprised of 200 chapters in 17 coastal states spanning the Gulf of Mexico, Atlantic and Pacific coasts. In 2007, CCA expanded into the Pacific Northwest and the organization has quickly grown to more than 9,000 members and continues to launch chapters in both Oregon and Washington.


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