OLYMPIA - For the third straight year, fishery managers from Washington and Oregon plan to reduce the allowable catch of white sturgeon on the lower Columbia River, where the species’ abundance has been declining since 2007.
At a public meeting last Saturday (Jan. 7), the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission called for reducing this year’s combined sport and commercial harvest levels by as much 38 percent. A day earlier, Oregon’s commission endorsed a proposal to reduce the catch guideline by more than 25 percent.
The commissions charged fish and wildlife directors of both states with negotiating an agreement by Jan. 26, when a joint hearing is scheduled to announce fishing seasons for sturgeon and salmon below Bonneville Dam.
Last year’s sturgeon guideline for those waters was 15,640 fish, although only 14,488 were actually harvested. Under the current policy, 80 percent of the catch is allocated to the recreational fishery and 20 percent to the commercial fishery.
Any restriction in this year’s sturgeon harvest will follow a 30 percent reduction in 2011 and a 40 percent reduction the year before. Even so, most fishers who spoke before the Washington commission urged its members to take bold action to address the decline in sturgeon abundance in the lower Columbia River.
"Fishers are very concerned, and so is this commission," said Miranda Wecker, who chairs Washington’s nine-member citizen commission. "This may be our last attempt to reduce the downward trend before we have to consider a complete moratorium on the fishery."
Fish biologists for both states estimate that the abundance of "legal-size" sturgeon measuring 38-54 inches in length has declined nearly 50 percent in the past four years. Projections indicate that 65,000 white sturgeon will be present below Bonneville Dam this year.
Factors often cited for the decline include increased predation by sea lions and a drop in the abundance of smelt and lamprey, which contribute to sturgeons’ diet. Pat Frazier, a regional fish manager at WDFW, said sea lion predation in the lower Columbia River increased in each of the past six years, claiming more than 8,300 sturgeon in 2011.
Besides providing direction for the sturgeon fishery, the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission held public hearings on proposed changes in this year’s sportfishing rules and a bid to increase the number of multiple season hunting permits issued each year.
Both of those measures are scheduled for possible adoption by the commission at a meeting set for Feb. 3-4 in Olympia.
Changes proposed in state sportfishing rules range from closing steelhead fisheries earlier in a number of rivers in the Puget Sound area to changing the opening day of the lowland lake fishing season to the fourth Saturday in April. All changes proposed by WDFW are posted at http://wdfw.wa.gov/fishing/regulations/rule_proposals/.
Since 2006, WDFW has conducted annual drawings for multiple-season hunting permits, which allow a certain number of hunters to participate in all general hunting seasons for deer and elk. Without the special permit, hunters must choose among archery, muzzleloader or modern firearm seasons.
WDFW has proposed increasing the number of deer permits from 4,000 currently to 8,500, and the number of elk permits from 850 to 1,250. State wildlife managers told the commission that increasing permit levels will expand hunting opportunities without posing a risk to deer and elk populations.
Two new commissioners - Larry Carpenter of Mount Vernon and Jay Kehne of Omak - joined the nine-member panel for the meeting held Jan. 6-7 in Olympia. Both were appointed by Gov. Chris Gregoire to fill vacant terms on the commission.
Carpenter is owner of Master Marine Services Inc., in Mount Vernon. He also serves on the Southern Panel of the Pacific Salmon Commission and has been a long-time participant in the North of Falcon process, which is used to plan annual salmon-fishing seasons.
Kehne serves as Okanogan outreach associate for Conservation Northwest. He previously worked with the U. S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service for 31 years and has collaborated on an Okanogan County conservation-easement working group with county officials, land trusts and WDFW staff.
More information on the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission is available at http://wdfw.wa.gov/commission/.