More cuts coming to lower Columbia sturgeon fishing in 2012

By Allen Thomas, Columbian outdoors reporter

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Washington's Fish and Wildlife Commission wants a 38 percent cut in the allowable sport-commercial catch of sturgeon from the lower Columbia River this year.

That cut would be on top of a 40 percent reduction in 2010 and 30 percent drop in 2011.

"Fishers are very concerned, and so is this commission,'' said Miranda Wecker of Naselle, chair of the state Fish and Wildlife Commission. "This may be our last attempt to reduce the downward trend before we have to consider a complete moratorium on the fishery.''

The number of legal-size sturgeon between the ocean and Bonneville Dam has been on a steady decline with a drop of almost 50 percent in the past four years.

The harvest guideline for 2011 was 17,000, although only 14,514 sturgeon were actually taken.

Under the three-year Washington-Oregon Columbia River sturgeon accord, the harvest would drop to about 14,000 in 2012. That is a harvest rate of 22.5 percent of the legal-size population.

The Washington and Oregon departments of Fish and Wildlife staff proposed to their respective commissions on Friday that harvest rate drop to 19.25 percent, or 12,513 sturgeon in 2012.

That's not a deep enough cut, the Washington commission decided on Saturday.

Washington wants the harvest rate cut to 16 percent, or a 10,400-sturgeon allowable harvest.

Oregon's Fish and Wildlife Commission on Friday agreed it wants a harvest no higher than 19.25 percent (12,513 fish).

Phil Anderson, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife director, and his Oregon counterpart, Roy Elicker, will start negotiations on Thursday.

Sturgeon harvests in the lower Columbia are split 80 percent for sportsmen and 20 percent for the commercial fleet.

The sport share then is subdivided among the estuary, the lower Columbia between Wauna, Ore., and Bonneville Dam, and the lower Willamette River.

If the harvest is reduced to as few as 10,400 sturgeon, the gillnet share would be 2,080 and the sport allocation 8,320.

In the estuary sport fishery, the share would be 4,160 sturgeon. That would result in the main summer season starting on May 12 and ending between about July 4 to 9.

Between Wauna and Bonneville Dam, the share would be 2,080 sturgeon, The season would be open Thursdays through Saturdays in January through July, then again from about Oct. 20 through Dec. 31.

In the lower Willamette River, the share would be 1,768 sturgeon. That would be enough for about three days of fishing.

Factors often cited for the sturgeon decline include increased predation by Steller sea lions and a drop in smelt and lamprey, key diet sources. A state biologist told the Washington commission sea lions killed an estimated 8,300 sturgeon in 2011 in the lower Columbia.

The lower Columbia sturgeon population is "coming down like a ramp,'' said Harry Barber of Washougal, a member of the bistate Columbia River Recreational Advisory Group, said Tuesday.

"I'm not optimistic even going to 16 percent will turn this around,'' Barber added.

Tony Nigro of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife said sturgeon have a long life span and changes in fishing regulations take a decade or more to show up in population estimates.

"You have 25 to 40 year classes,'' Nigro said. "Sturgeon are not salmon. They're not as dynamic as salmon.''

A final decision on 2012 lower Columbia River fishing regulations will be made beginning at 10 a.m. Jan. 26 at the Sheraton Portland Airport Hotel, 8235 N.E. Airport Way.