Washington and Oregon officials are calling for the annual sturgeon harvest in the lower Columbia River to be cut another 30 percent for 2011 through 2013.
Cindy LeFleur, Columbia River policy coordinator for Washington, recommended to the state Fish and Wildlife Commission Friday that the annual combined sport and commercial take drop to 17,000, down from 24,000 in 2010.
That’s a drop of 29.2 percent on the heels of a 40 percent harvest cut between 2009 and 2010. If adopted, it will be the fourth reduction since 1997, when the catch guideline was 67,300.
Research by the two states indicates the population of legal-size (38 to 54 inches fork length) sturgeon will decline slightly in 2011, increase some in 2012 through 2014, then drop again beginning about 2015.
The population of legal-size sturgeon was estimated to be 87,000 in 2009, 85,000 this year and to drop to 77,000 in 2011. The catch of sublegal sturgeon has been on the decline since 2005 and sea lion predation has increased annually since 2006.
Washington’s sturgeon management policy expires this month and state officials are suggesting a three-year accord with Oregon.
The policy proposed to the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission continues the 80 percent sport-20 percent commercial sharing of the harvest. Also remaining status quo would be splitting the sport share 60 percent to the Columbia River estuary and 40 percent to the stretch between the Wauna power lines and Bonneville Dam.
The 17,000 harvest for 2011 would allocate 3,400 sturgeon to the commercial fishery and 13,600 to the sport fishery. The sport share would be additionally divided with 6,800 going to the estuary, 3,425 to the Columbia between Wauna and Bonneville Dam and 2,550 in the lower Willamette River.
Bill Tweit, Columbia River policy lead for Washington, said one unknown is how many Columbia sturgeon are not inthe river.
“Some fair portion of this population does move into the ocean for varied lengths of time, probably for environmenal reasons and stay there for varied lengths of time,” Tweit said.
Commission member Conrad Mahnken of Bainbridge Island, a retired federal fisheries biologist, said the 17,000 harvest figure might need to be lower.
“These populations have a nasty habit of collapsing and when they go they go very quickly,” Mahnken said, speaking about sturgeon in other locations worldwide.
Commission member David Jennings of Olympia said the Columbia River is not a stable system for sturgeon.
“You have to also look at the environmental conditions,” he said. “What’s the prey base, toxin loads and the bycatch?”
Hans Mak of Shelton told the commission to end all targeted sturgeon harvest.
Sport fishing should be catch-and-release only, and closed from May through August upstream of Interstate 205, he said. Commercial catches only should be sturgeon taken incidentally when salmon fishing, he added.
Bob Fehlen of Washougal, representing the Coastal Conservation Association, outlined flaws in the harvest model used by Washington and Oregon, calling for a new model that ensures the population is growing.
Fehlen also asked the commission to eliminate the January-February commercial winter season.
“With a directed season, sturgeon experience excessive handle and increased mortality,” he said.
But commercial fishermen told the commission that Oregon conducted two short-term holding experiments in 2009 and 2010 where 51 sturgeon captured with gillnets were held in net pens for 48 hours. All survived in good condition.
Kent Martin, a Wahkiakum County commercial fisherman, said studies are needed on sport hooking and handling mortalities at various times and water temperatures.
The values assigned to sport hook and release losses “are little more than guesstimates,” Martin said.
“If gillnets were so detrimental to sturgeon, why would both states run their tagging operations out of a gillnet?” asked Jim Wells of Astoria, president of Salmon For All, a commercial group.
The big cut in the harvest appears a given for 2011-13.
“I want to see a very, very conservative fishery on these fish until we bring them back,” Mahnken said.