CCA urges end to winter sturgeon gillnet fishery

By Allen Thomas, Columbian outdoors reporter

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The Coastal Conservation Association is calling for an end to the winter sturgeon gillnet season in the lower Columbia River to reduce handling of the dwindling population.

“It is an unneeded season on fish that are in serious trouble,’’ said Bruce Polley, CCA Oregon 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.’’

Historically, the winter sturgeon season has been in January and early to mid-February.

In 2011, Washington and Oregon allowed four 24-hour commercial fishing periods during Jan. 18 through Feb. 9 from the ocean to Bonneville Dam. The commercial fleet was required to use 9-inch minimum-mesh nets and could land a maximum of 10 sturgeon per vessel per week.

Fifty sturgeon from a 200-fish guideline were caught, along with 88 spring chinook salmon. The five-year average is 912 sturgeon and 78 chinook in the winter sturgeon season.

“Last year, more spring chinook salmon were sold during this fishery as allowed by-catch than sturgeon,’’ Polley said. “This is an early salmon fishery disguised as a sturgeon fishery.

The fishery had seven to 10 deliveries in the first three periods, but 31 deliveries on Feb. 8-9.

Jim Wells of Astoria, representing Salmon For All, a commercial group, said his industry is not interested in losing any of its fishing opportunities.

“We don’t want them dictating to us how, where and when we fish as long as we stay within our allocation,’’ Wells said.

Commercial interest in sturgeon fishing has dropped as the sturgeon population wanes, he said. The weekly 10-sturgeon landing limit also plays a role in limiting commercial effort.

“The best fishing in the winter is upstream of the Willamette,’’ Wells said. “With the landing limit, it’s not enough for guys down here to travel that far.’’

State biologists said in October the population of legal-size sturgeon in the lower Columbia is projected to drop from 77,000 in 2011 to 65,000 in 2012. The harvest is expected to drop from 17,000 in 2011 to 14,500 or less.

The commercials get 20 percent of the harvest, which would be about 2,925 in 2012.

Polley said the winter sturgeon season comes when endangered wild winter steelhead and wild spring chinook are entering the lower Columbia River.

“Because it is considered a sturgeon fishery, there are none of the normal safeguards (tangle nets, observers, maximum soak times, recovery boxes) that are in place during spring chinook seasons,’’ he said.

Winter steelhead do not get caught in 9-inch-mesh nets, Wells said.

“When we use 9-inch, we don’t even see a steelhead,’’ he added.

In the past five years, commercial fishermen were paid an average $2.40 per pound for sturgeon in the winter. The average was $1.96 per pound in all the other seasons.

The commercials are able to catch their allocation of sturgeon as bycatch during salmon seasons, Polley said.

Staff from both Washington and Oregon will present briefings on Friday to their policy-setting commissions regarding sturgeon.