For the third straight year, fishery managers from Washington and Oregon plan to reduce the allowable catch of white sturgeon on the lower Columbia River, where the species’ abundance has been declining since 2007.
At a public meeting held Saturday, the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission called for reducing this year’s combined sport and commercial harvest levels by as much 38 percent. A day earlier, Oregon’s commission endorsed a proposal to reduce the catch guideline by more than 25 percent.
The commissions charged fish and wildlife directors of both states with negotiating an agreement by Jan. 26, when a joint hearing is scheduled to announce fishing seasons for sturgeon and salmon below Bonneville Dam, which is located at about river mile 146.
Last year’s sturgeon guideline for those waters was 15,640 fish, although only 14,488 were actually harvested. Under the current policy, 80 percent of the catch is allocated to the recreational fishery and 20 percent to the commercial fishery.
Any restriction in this year’s sturgeon harvest will follow a 30 percent reduction in 2011 and a 40 percent reduction the year before. Even so, most fishers who spoke before the Washington commission urged its members to take bold action to address the decline in sturgeon abundance in the lower Columbia River.
"Fishers are very concerned, and so is this commission," said Miranda Wecker, who chairs Washington’s nine-member citizen commission. "This may be our last attempt to reduce the downward trend before we have to consider a complete moratorium on the fishery."
Fish biologists for both states estimate that the abundance of "legal-size" sturgeon measuring 38-54 inches in length has declined nearly 50 percent in the past four years. Projections indicate that 65,000 white sturgeon will be present below Bonneville Dam this year.
Factors often cited for the decline include increased predation by sea lions and a drop in the abundance of smelt and lamprey, which contribute to sturgeons’ diet. Pat Frazier, a regional fish manager at WDFW, said managers estimate sea lion predation in the lower Columbia River increased in each of the past six years, claiming more than 8,300 sturgeon in 2011.
OFWC during its Jan. 6 meeting authorized ODFW staff to negotiate a reduction in the 2012 harvest guideline with Washington officials. Under options presented by ODFW staff, the harvest guideline in 2012 could be reduced to 12,514, which is 15 percent less than what the current agreement between the states calls for and more than 25 percent less than the 2011 harvest guideline. The final season details will be decided at a Jan. 26 Columbia River Compact/Joint State Hearing in Portland.
On Oregon’s Willamette River, the OFWC directed staff to allocate the available harvest guideline to a single season beginning in February rather than trying to reopen a second season in the fall. The Willamette feeds into the Columbia at river mile 102 at Portland.
Based on the harvest rate set for the Columbia River system overall, the 2012 harvest guideline for the Willamette could be as few as 1,566 to 1,884 fish. Managers are predicting those could be caught in just 5-6 days of fishing. The final season details will be set later this month.