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Columbia’s big sturgeon appear to be in big trouble

A tourist photographs “Herman the Sturgeon” in the sturgeon viewing tank at Bonneville Fish Hatchery near Cascade Locks, Ore. The fish is longer than 10 feet, weighs more than 450 pounds and is more than 70 years old. (Associated Press)
A tourist photographs “Herman the Sturgeon” in the sturgeon viewing tank at Bonneville Fish Hatchery near Cascade Locks, Ore. The fish is longer than 10 feet, weighs more than 450 pounds and is more than 70 years old. (Associated Press)

FISHING -- The sturgeon population in the lower Columbia River continues to dwindle and state officials have started talks on how to tweak back sport-fishing seasons for 2012, according to Allen Thomas of the Vancouver Columbian.

Brad James, a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist, told the bi-state Columbia River Recreational Advisers Group last week that the number of legal-size sturgeon is projected to drop from 77,000 in 2011 to 65,000 in 2012.

Lance Beckman of White Salmon, a retired fisheries research biologist, supported cutting the harvest rate to 16 percent beginning in 2012.

"The less harvest the better,'' he said. "We've got a resource in deep trouble.''

Read on for more details from the Columbian report.

Washington and Oregon use two methods to estimated legal-size sturgeon abundance.

Gillnets are used in May and June to capture and tag sturgeon. Setlines are used in July to recapture the tags in one method. Tags are recaptured from sport- and commercial-caught fish in the subsequent year in the other method.

James said the estimate for 2011 from the second method will not be available until around August of 2012.

A three-year agreement between Washington and Oregon allows the combined sport-commercial harvest rate of the legal-size (38 to 54 inches fork length) to be 22.5 percent.

That would allow for a harvest of 14,500 sturgeon in 2012, down from 17,000 in 2011.

Biologist John North of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife said under the bi-state plan the sport fleet would get 80 percent of the harvest, or 11,600 sturgeon in 2012.

That would break down to 5,800 in the estuary, 2,910 between the Wauna power lines and Bonneville Dam and 2,175 in Oregon's lower Willamette River.

The arithmetic does not add up precisely due to a baseline catch added to the lower Willamette outside the agreement and a slight adaption of the sharing formula because of a different size limit in the summer estuary fishery.

North said 5,800 sturgeon in the estuary would be enough for the January-April fishery, plus daily from May 12 to July 18. Few fish are caught in January-April period at the Columbia River mouth.

The 2,910 sturgeon for Wauna to Bonneville Dam would allow for fishing three days a week from January through July, the standard August-September closure, then reopening for three days a week again beginning about Oct. 11 or 12.

Anglers in the lower Willamette would need about eight days to catch and keep 2,175 sturgeon, North said. That season has been in February.

While not happy with the decline in sturgeon numbers, there was no call from the Columbia River advisory group to restructure the fishing seasons or change the allocation between the three areas.

"There's no rumbling on the docks in the estuary for change,'' said Steve Watrous of Vancouver. "The estuary does not want to go to days of the week or size-limit changes.''

Bob Fehlen of Washougal said sturgeon fishing in his area has been terrible in 2011.

"It's been a small catch,'' he said. "Fishermen think there's a shortage of fish in the river and that's why we're not getting fish. It's not a happy sight up there. The fishermen are concerned.''

Ken Beer of Dodson, Ore., said the fishing just downstream of Bonneville Dam has been poor, too.

There were extremely high flows earlier this year, plus there's a general belief among Columbia Gorge anglers that sea lion predation in their area is driving the sturgeon to other parts of the river.

"There's no need to change the regulations,'' he said. "It'll just confuse the fishermen more.''

Oregon's sturgeon conservation plan calls for reducing the harvest rate from the current 22.5 percent to 16 percent beginning in 2014.

Rich Landers
Rich Landers joined The Spokesman-Review in 1977. He is the Outdoors editor for the Sports Department writing and photographing stories about hiking, hunting, fishing, boating, conservation, nature and wildlife and related topics.

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