OLYMPIA — Washington wildlife commission member Rollie Schmitten teed up the question on Friday: Is it time to consider closing sport and commercial sturgeon fishing in the lower Columbia River?
The number of legal-size sturgeon between Bonneville Dam and the ocean has dwindled steadily since 2007. It's not unprecedented — there was a big decline in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
But now sea lions are eating an estimated 10,600 sturgeon a year, the catch of small sturgeon is down, and there are other indications the population is in trouble.
This comes on top of 40 percent reduction in sport-commercial harvest in 2010 and additional 30 percent in 2011.
Sport and commercial fishermen asked the state Fish and Wildlife Commission on Friday to take bold steps to save lower Columbia sturgeon.
"Are we approaching the point where we should simply shut it down...a moratorium?'' asked Schmitten of Leavenworth, former West Coast and national director of the National Marine Fisheries Service, the federal fish agency.
In 2011, the combined sport-commercial harvest ceiling was 15,640 although the actual catch was 14,488. The three-year Washington-Oregon sturgeon accord calls for the harvest to drop to 13,500 in 2011.
Guy Norman, regional director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the agency wants to negotiate a deal with Oregon to instead cut the harvest to 11,500 in 2012 and an even deeper reduction in 2013.
"If we don't reverse this, there's going to be nothing to fish for,'' Ed Wickersham of Ridgefield, government relations chair for the Coastal Conservation Association-Washington, told the commission.
"We can't continue to take baby steps,'' said Harry Barber of Washougal, also a CCA member.
Several commission members said cutting the harvest to 11,500 sturgeon in 2012 may not be enough.
"If this decline continues for one or two more years I'm looking at doing a moratorium entirely,'' said commission member David Jennings of Olympia. He mentioned dropping the harvest to 9,600 in 2012.
"The user groups seem to be ahead of us on the fact there's a real problem here,'' Jennings said.
Commission member Gary Douvia of Kettle Falls also called for a deep cut.
"If we don't just step up this year then I don't know how many years before we have to shut it down,'' he said.
Commission member Conrad Mahnken of Bainbridge Island said the decline of legal-size sturgeon is about 40 percent in four years.
"I think what we're heading for here is something that's a real disaster and I think we need to move on it real fast,'' Mahnken said.
Commission chairman Miranda Wecker of Naselle said the nine-member panel needs to draft guidance for department director Phil Anderson to follow in negotiating a catch reduction in Oregon.
The commission decided Friday to complete that statement either today or during their Jan. 20 conference call.
Also on Friday, the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission discussed sturgeon and approved negotiating a harvest reduction with Washington.
Sport and commercial fishing seasons will be adopted at a bi-state meeting beginning at 10 a.m. Jan. 26 at the Sheraton Portland Airport Hotel, 8235 N.E. Airport Way.