Oregon and Washington fish and wildlife officials are debating whether to close the only Columbia River sturgeon fishery below Bonneville Dam to protect the fish until the population rebounds.
The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission voted unanimously Saturday to start talking to Oregon about closing the catch-and-release sturgeon fishery. Since 2014, that’s been the only sturgeon fishing allowed below Bonneville because of concerns about sea lion predation and indications that the sturgeon population is too low on spawning adults and juvenile fish.
A "retention" sturgeon fishery, which allows anglers to keep their catch, was closed two years ago. That closure reduced fishing effort by 85-90 percent, according to Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Tucker Jones. He said while the population as a whole is not in ideal condition, he plans to tell the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission that closing the catch-and-release fishery isn't necessary.
"It seems very hard for me to believe the population in excess of half a million could not handle catch-and-release fishing," Jones said. "They’re not as strong as we’d like them to be, but it's not looking like they’re in dire straits."
On Saturday, Washington Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Conrad Mahnken of Bainbridge Island argued for ending sturgeon fisheries in the lower Columbia because, he said, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists almost all of the world's sturgeon populations as being in "really deep trouble," and too many of the indicators show the Columbia River population isn't healthy.
"I could not in good conscience support any kind of handling or harvest of sturgeon in the lower Columbia River," he said. "The white sturgeon is the last large remaining population of sturgeon of a single species in the world and I just can't bring myself to support any kind of a fishery or handling."
Patrick Frazier, a fish program policy coordinator with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said while the total number of legal-size sturgeon has gone up in the past several years, there still aren't as many young sturgeon and spawning adults as there should be.
“That’s the kind of conflicting information that’s giving us a somewhat murky view of where this population is headed,” Frazier said. "In some ways it’s still a healthy population. The challenge with this population is the productivity is low."
Technically, Frazier said, there are enough legal-size sturgeon to leave the catch-and-release fishery open and even start allowing anglers to keep some fish. But Washington commissioners worry the overall population is too fragile to allow any fishing at all. Biologists say ideally 90-95 percent of the population would be juvenile fish, but right now juveniles only make up only 69 percent of the population. Meanwhile, biologists suspect the growing presence of sea lions in the lower river has caused sturgeon to scatter to tributaries and areas that aren't ideal for spawning. Last year was a very poor spawning year anyway, in part because of warm water conditions.
Jones said all that means it's not likely the states will reopen a catch-and-keep sturgeon fishery on the lower river this year.
"There are a lot more legal fish out there, which at first blush would make it seem like we could open a retention fishery, but we’d like to see a lot more juveniles behind those adults," he said.