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New sturgeon rules below Bonneville

By BUZZ RAMSEY

Special to the News

The bountiful fishing prospects for 2003 won’t include sturgeon, at least for those wishing to keep one. As of March 24, sturgeon fishing will close on the Willamette and Columbia Rivers.

According to Washington biologist Brad James, 360-906-6716, there are over one million sub-legal sturgeons (fish smaller than 42 inches) finning the lower Willamette and Columbia Rivers. However, sturgeon measuring between 42 and 60 inches in length are the fish anglers are allowed to harvest and the ones requiring more protection.

The research that supports the quota reduction reveals an annual decline in keeper-size fish of 4 percent. According to Brad, over harvest in the 80s and 90s (when quotas allowed 60,000 or more fish to be harvested annually), combined with a lack of available feed that slowed the growth of fish that might otherwise be larger, is what contributed to today’s lack of keeper-size fish.

Realizing the need for major regulation changes to achieve the required harvest reduction, various interests worked for months to craft new angling rules that would reduce harvest in what they considered to be equitable.

However, two very different proposals developed. One, championed by angling groups and many guides recommended restricting the number of days fishing would be allowed each week, with the goal of keeping the river open all year or as long as the new quota might allow.

This proposal, according to some managers, modeled out as the one that would produce the most angling days, generate more fishing license sales; and keep guides, charters, and tackle shops mostly whole.

The other proposal, developed by charter boat interests at the mouth of the Columbia - where most sturgeon are caught, instead wanted to initiate early season block closures that would protect their prime fishing season (May and June), and close sturgeon fishing when alternate fisheries might be more available to them.

The riff widened when the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission sided with the spread-the-pain reduction proposal, while Washington State sided with the block closure remedy. The stalemate was broken, as is tradition, when the respective State Fish and Wildlife Directors (Jeff Koenings and Lindsay Ball) hammered out a deal.

The newly adopted regulations will close the Columbia to the retention of sturgeon from Bonneville Dam to the Wauna (near Astoria) from March 24 to June 30. This zone, which includes the Willamette River, will be limited to an annual harvest quota of no more than 12,000 fish.

The season from Wauna to the mouth of the Columbia is open now and will remain so until July 9, with an 18,000 fish quota ceiling. The mouth season will close July 10 (or quota) through September 30.

The final agreement, that splits the river into two separate management zones and requires long block closures, left some wondering why one-third of the anglers will get 18,000 fish while the other two-thirds will have to be satisfied with only 12,000.

Although the official harvest limit is set at 32,000, the fishery will be managed for a harvest of 30,000 fish to ensure the quota is not exceeded.

Anglers will be allowed to practice sturgeon catch-and-release during the above time periods closed to retention. The only exception is in the area from Beacon Rock to Bonneville Dam, where fishing sturgeon from a boat is illegal from May 1 to July 15, to prevent anglers from catching oversize sturgeon during their spawning season.

Regulations already require the use of barbless hooks when angling for sturgeon.

There are 6,000 to 9,000 oversize sturgeons caught and released from the lower Columbia each year. These adult fish average seven to nine feet in length and represent the spawning population on the Columbia. Biologists are studying these fish to find out what effect, if any, the catch-and-release fishery is having on them.

According to Molly Webb, a research scientist with Oregon State University, 541-737-2463, regular and intensive carcass surveys conducted by Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife since 1994, have recorded an average of only 19 oversize sturgeons found during their June through August study period. These fish are likely the result of death from old age and a small percentage of catch-and-release mortality.

Molly’s research has revealed that few females, with ripe eggs or engaged in spawning, are caught in the catch-and-release sport fishery and it appears that ripe females don’t bite very well. For example, one sampling of 182 oversize sturgeons caught, examined and released by sport anglers saw no spawning females. However, ready-to-spawn male sturgeon (those with active sperm) are somewhat more willing to bite than females.

There is more demand for Columbia River sturgeon than there is available resource. Hopefully the new lower-harvest quota will allow the population of these popular fish to stabilize and perhaps become even more numerous than they are today.

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