Sturgeon in the lower Columbia River aren’t facing extinction but may face the risk of becoming a dwindling population if current trends persist.
A new state report shows that woes threatening the lower Columbia River sturgeon population continue, with meager spawning success downstream from Bonneville Dam.
These fish are known for their long bodies, armored with white and earth-toned plates, which expertly weave through the river’s turbulent water. Sturgeon are acrobatic and heavy, leading those who fish for them to spend a seemingly endless amount of time and energy grappling with their hook — only to release them after the strenuous battle.
They are beloved, leading those who observe them to be concerned by the annual findings.
Estimates illustrate a decline of legal-size sturgeon — those that are 38 to 54 inches fork length (from the tip of the snout to fork in the tail) — from 110,100 in 2021 to 78,400 in 2022, which may be a result of low spawning rates and high juvenile mortality, according to the report.
Although adult sturgeon totals are just above desired goals, juvenile populations have continued to nosedive — a consistent trend in recent years. The result has translated to a decrease in legally harvestable fish.
Considering this trend, the Washington and Oregon departments of fish and wildlife have intentionally spared sturgeon from being harvested so they can mature and reproduce.
Laura Heironimus, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife sturgeon lead, said this strategy has been successful but not at a rate to maintain meaningful fisheries, which poses a challenge for setting seasons that both engage fishers and sustain sturgeon longevity.
“There’s going to come a time where we’re not sure about how these fisheries are going to proceed,” she said. “One of the things that we’re considering at this time is whether or not they will proceed this year.”
Historic, existing woes
A significant concern when looking at sturgeon populations worldwide is reproduction failure. It does not appear to be happening below Bonneville Dam.
“The population is not spiraling towards extinction,” she said.
Historical overharvest in the late 1800s collapsed sturgeon abundance in the lower Columbia River, which remained limited into the following century. Through harvest management and additional regulations, the fish began to rebound — although nowhere near its original population.
Art Martin, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Columbia River section manager, said Bonneville Dam altered sturgeon’s rocky riverine habitats and upstream movement, dislocating populations and dynamics throughout the basin.
Bonneville Dam forces sturgeon to spend their life in smaller parts of the river and restricts juveniles from returning to their spawning locations above the dam’s concrete wall, as they are often too large to use fish ladders. Fish below the dam resort to tailraces, or channels that carry water away from a hydroelectric plant, where there are turbulent and aerated currents of water.
The second-largest contributor to sturgeon decline is predation from large mammals like Steller sea lions, numbers of which have grown in recent years, Martin said.
There could also be impacts from climate change, prey availability, contaminants and perhaps even thiamine deficiencies.
In short, it’s complicated.
“This is a complex system and there’s not one thing that’s causing the problem,” Heironimus said. Without more comprehensive research, she added, little is known about what exactly causes the issue nor how to address it.
Washington and Oregon departments of fish and wildlife have developed and advocated for Columbia flow regimes, created and expanded spawning sanctuaries for major dams along the river, and have updated sport fishing regulations to protect sturgeon.
But this isn’t enough — the agencies need money to direct toward rising study costs.
“It becomes increasingly difficult to do a good job in just our baseline monitoring, as we’re having to continuously make cuts to what our project objectives are and how many days we can spend on the water,” Heironimus said.
Currently, the departments receive a hodgepodge of funding from various sport fishing programs and legislative initiatives.
Despite requesting governmental actions to address the issue — found in both state and federal biodiversity bills and wildlife recovery acts — there has been limited success.
Martin said the Bonneville Power Administration should be funding research below Bonneville Dam to mitigate issues caused by hydropower operations. BPA currently only invests in sturgeon-related activities above the dam.
“They refuse to address how they truncated sturgeon habitats and stocks beyond direct impact areas,” he said.
To this point, BPA spokesperson Doug Johnson said sturgeon below Bonneville Dam have access to lower river spawning and the ocean.
Liz Hamilton, Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association executive director, said the annual report doesn’t come as a surprise, rather it enforces a sense of dread. Specifically, it’s rooted in a concern that there isn’t enough information on how to reverse the issue.
Economically, the sport fishing industry will experience a loss of guiding and fishing tackle business. The association supports imposing a retention on catching sturgeon, she said, but this won’t be sustainable in the long run. It’s a matter of being proactive instead of reactive.
“What kind of society are we? Do we just go over here because it’s an emergency or, you know, can we notice a problem and begin to address it early?” Hamilton said, later positing many issues requiring further research are connected to hydropower operations.
Harry Barber of Washougal, a lifelong fisherman and one of several recreational advisers for the department, agreed that scarce funding has become a major hurdle in helping sturgeon populations grow. But he pressed further with a controversial resolution: prohibit sport and commercial fishing altogether for at least a decade.
“This population is very unhealthy,” Barber said. “It’s in a world of hurt, and it’s not going to get better by itself.”
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