Washington changes annual sturgeon limit to two fish

By Allen Thomas, Columbian outdoors reporter

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Washington's annual bag limit for sturgeon will be two fish — not one — effective May 1, the state Fish and Wildlife Commission voted Friday.

The nine-member panel agreed unanimously to change a decision made on March 1 to cut Washington's annual limit from the current five sturgeon to one beginning in May.

Oregon has a one-sturgeon annual limit for 2013.

But Oregon also has a large fleet of guides who fish in the Columbia River estuary in May and June.

Miranda Wecker, chair of the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission, said a one-sturgeon annual limit would reallocate harvest to Oregon.

"The effect of the change on March 1 was to just shift greater opportunity to Oregon guides,'' Wecker said. "Once our fishers on the Washington side — we have fewer guides — take their one sturgeon allowed they are done. Whatever sturgeon are left in the quota will be more available to the clients of the Oregon guides.''

The main summer sport season downstream of the Wauna power lines near Cathlamet will start May 11 and is scheduled open through June 30. The estuary has a catch allocation of 4,042 sturgeon.

"The harvest is set on the basis of a quota, but some of us just missed that entirely,'' Wecker said.

Commission member Larry Carpenter of Mount Vernon said to transfer the harvest to Oregon guides would be "a great disservice to our constituents.''

The estuary also is open daily from now through April 30, but few, if any, sturgeon are caught in the early season.

Sturgeon harvests have been cut each of the past several years, but the population of legal-size fish in the lower Columbia continues to be down.

The Washington and Oregon commissions were on track to ban sturgeon retention in the lower Columbia beginning in 2013.

Then, in early December, several guides told the Oregon commission they already had sturgeon trips booked for 2013, and the estuary sturgeon trips provided 30 percent to 60 percent of their annual income.

The Oregon commission adopted the one-sturgeon annual limit as a measure to help the guides transition to no retention in 2014.

Commissioner Rollie Schmitten of Lake Wenatchee said the overall sport-commercial sturgeon harvest guideline in the lower Columbia is 10,105 in 2013, down very little from 10,400 in 2012.

"We haven't made much progress,'' Schmitten said.

Phil Anderson, director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, countered that the population of legal-size sturgeon went from 65,100 in 2012 to 74,300 in 2013.

Anderson also said he negotiated with Oregon to drop the harvest from 11,088 this year to 10,105.

Schmitten reiterated the importance of moving to non-retention in 2014.

"It would be a total disaster for our fishing communities to see these listed,'' he said. "It's much different than salmon. We don't have a significant hatchery component that would allow us to fall back.''