CCA calls for end to gillnetting in sturgeon sanctuary

By Allen Thomas, Columbian outdoors reporter

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The Coastal Conservation Association is asking Washington and Oregon to end gillnetting in the 9.5-mile sturgeon summer sanctuary in the Columbia River just downstream of Bonneville Dam.

Two years ago, the states expanded the six-mile sanctuary downstream of Bonneville an additional 3.5 miles to Skamania Island.

The month of August also was added, closing the area to all sport sturgeon fishing from May through August.

But the stretch of the Columbia between the commercial fishing deadline at Beacon Rock and Skamania Island remains open to gillnetters during the sport-closure period.

In 2010, the netters fished eight days in the sanctuary. In 2011, they were given 10 days — two in June and eight in late August.

“It’s a little bit of a poke in the eye for the recreational community to voluntarily give up a very popular, productive fishery for conservation and find out they are still running gillnets through there specifically targeting those same sturgeon,’’ said Bryan Irwin, executive director of the Coastal Conservation Association in the Northwest.

Sport salmon fishing is allowed in the sanctuary most of the time during the four months.

Ed Wickersham of Ridgefield, government relations chair of CCA-Washington, said his group is not trying to reduce the commercial catch of sturgeon or change the sport-commercial allocation.

“With this declining population, we’re trying to eliminate the unnecessary stress gillnets cause oversize sturgeon in a spawning sanctuary,’’ he said.

Irwin said the states monitored 64 gillnet drifts in the nights of Aug. 23 and Aug. 30 between Woodland and Beacon Rock. The observers recorded eight oversize sturgeon released for 373 fall chinook kept.

That’s a 2.14 percent handle rate and expanded to cover the 25,338 chinook kept converts into an oversize sturgeon handle of 543 fish, he said.

“There’s every reason to believe the oversize handle would be higher not lower in the spawning sanctuary, that’s why it’s there,’’ Irwin said.

Guy Norman, regional director for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the size and time of the sanctuary increased progressively to respond to sport fishing targeting on large sturgeon.

The sanctuary regulations have reduced substantially the handle of brood stock sturgeon in the Columbia Gorge during the spawning and recovery period, he added.

“We continue to allow sport fishing for other species, which generates about 50,000 angler trips a year,’’ Norman said.

There are about five to 15 commercial boats fishing in the lower half of the sanctuary in June and August.

‘‘The commercial fishery is set during these periods to focus on salmon, but we do allow limited sale of sturgeon when there are fish remaining on the allocation.’’ he said.

The overall handle of oversize sturgeon in the gorge is a fraction of what it was several years ago, he said.

Washington and Oregon will review the sanctuary regulations as part of larger review of lower Columbia sturgeon fisheries prior to 2013.

“The states are able to consider any changes to 2012 regulations during this year’s Columbia River Compact process, if we choose to do so,’’ Norman said.

In 2011, the gillnet fleet was limited to five sturgeon per vessel in the two nights of summer chinook fishing in mid-June, 10 sturgeon per vessel on the night of Aug. 4-5 and three sturgeon per vessel per week in the eight days of fishing between Aug. 16 and 31.

Commercial fisherman Tim Heuker of Heuker Brothers Inc. of Cascade Locks, Ore., said there is plenty of salmon sport fishing with baited lures in the sanctuary and those anglers catch and release sturgeon.

“They’re handle a lot of sturgeon with treble hooks on Kwikfish,’’ he said.

Heuker said CCA has a point in that the commercials can keep sturgeon, while sportsmen salmon fishing in the sanctuary must release them.

With the commercials often limited to three sturgeon a week, targeting on sturgeon during a salmon season does not financial sense, he added.

“If it’ll make them (sportsmen) happy if we don’t retain sturgeon, for three fish, I don’t really care,’’ Heuker said. “We can catch them later.’’

“The departments’ data shows that recreational handle of sturgeon has decreased significantly since the sanctuary restrictions were put in place,’’ Wickersham said. “But nothing has been done to ensure that hundreds of 1,500-foot gillnets aren’t fishing for sturgeon in the sanctuary.’’

In February, CCA urged citizens to contact the two state fish and wildlife departments to call for an end to gillnetting in the sanctuary. Wickersham said more than 1,100 have contacted the agencies.

“The department is trying to say they authorize a sport salmon fishery and a commercial salmon fishery and both have incidental take of sturgeon,’’ Irwin said.

“That statement is absolutely false. It’s a commercial salmon and sturgeon season. When you authorize sturgeon sales, you just made it a sturgeon season.’’