ASTORIA, Ore. — The lower Columbia River white sturgeon fishery — a mainstay for fishing guides — is changing significantly in 2014.
Fish and wildlife departments in Oregon and Washington will only allow sturgeon to be caught and then released next year below Bonneville Dam. The new policy could last for the next two years or more.
Fishing guides are worried about what the change will mean for their businesses and what it will do to the local economy. Commercial fishermen share a small portion of the sturgeon harvest as well.
“The trickle effect of this is humongous,” said Jody Mather, a local fishing and hunting guide. “People have to understand, closing the fishery doesn’t just close the fishery for me; I’m not the only one that loses.”
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In fall 2012, staff from both Oregon and Washington fish and wildlife departments initially recommended 2013 begin as catch and release for sturgeon, but both state commissions decided to delay it until 2014.
Uncertainties associated with sea lion predation and downward trends are the reason for the change, said Tony Nigro, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) manager of ocean salmon and the Columbia River Program.
“The commission chose to be more precautionary and to go to catch and release until the evidence shows these populations are in a better place than they are now,” he said.
But some contend that cutting off the fishery from retention is too conservative a measure and that the population decline is not as dire as it has been perceived.
Bob Rees, a fishing guide for the past 18 years and president of the Northwest Guides and Anglers Association, said conservation is a priority, but that the sturgeon “keeper-size is actually blossoming right now” and should be taken into consideration.
For 2014, ODFW is forecasting that about 131,700 legal-size sturgeon — about 3 1/2- to 4 1/2 feet from the snout to the fork in the tail — will be swimming through the lower Columbia River system. The final tally for this year was 114,200, although the agency predicted only 74,300.
Altering the fishery for 2014 coincided with a package of reforms for the lower Columbia River that included a proposal for phasing out gill net use on the main stem. The set of reforms were proposed by Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber and backed by the Oregon Legislature with passage of Senate Bill 830 earlier this year.
Oregon and Washington fish and wildlife commissions adopted the policy in 2012 and in early 2013. The policies are being challenged by commercial fishermen in the Oregon Court of Appeals.
In the past two years, the state agencies have set a harvesting guideline of about 10,000 sturgeon below Bonneville Dam, which is split at 80 percent for recreational fishermen and 20 percent for commercial. The majority is targeted beginning in May from river mile 40 near Cathlamet, Wash., downstream to the mouth of the river.
This year, fishermen reached a quota for sturgeon early and state fish and wildlife departments closed the fishery June 20.
Harvest rates for the large, ancient fish have declined with efforts to revive the population, which user groups have agreed upon in an effort to help with conservation of the species.
Steller sea lions at Bonneville Dam tend to favor sturgeon and have been a problem for spawning females there in recent years.
But the species of sea lion was recently removed from the list of threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.
“It opens up an avenue for us to start managing them,” Mather said, about Steller sea lions being delisted. “This should be a problem that’s very fixable.”
People come from around the country to fish for sturgeon in the lower Columbia. Some even travel from overseas for a chance at bagging them.
“It’s a wonderful business,” said Mather, who has owned and operated Master Guides in Astoria for the past 17 years. “I have the best job on the planet.”
Mather said he is booked a year in advance for a seat on his boat during the summer sturgeon season. Each seat is $175 and he takes up to six people each of the more than 50 days for sturgeon fishing. About half of his business comes from the fishery.
The lower Columbia is where he made his name and he knows where the fish are, he said. “In the last 15 years I’ve put more hours on that water sturgeon fishing than any human,” he said.
But it’s not just the fishing guides or commercial fishermen that will be affected by a catch and release only policy, he said. Mather said he bought nearly $4,000 in shrimp and anchovies from local providers for bait and spent $3,500 one year on supplies and gear from Englund Marine & Industrial Supply.
Those who come to fish for sturgeon stay at motels, shop at local stores and eat at area restaurants.
“My people, they’ve been doing this for so long, they love Astoria,” Mather said, “so part of coming down here fishing isn’t just the fishing; they make weekends of it.”
There are also workers who cut up the sturgeon and package it for fishermen.
Although catch and release is an option, Mather said people aren’t really interested in it because they’ve been able to keep sturgeon in the past. He predicts only a handful of his 54 boatloads that are booked for the fishery will come back for catch and release.
Mather said he and others are still requesting the same harvesting guidelines for 2014 of about 10,000 fish despite the planned catch and release policy. If the policy stays in place, Mather said he and others are in the process of seeking disaster relief funding for the economic impact.
Having the sturgeon fishery kick-started his business, Mather said. It blossomed into salmon fishing and the rest of his business.
“Sturgeon made me who I am today,” he said. “I’m better at sturgeon fishing than I am at anything.
“It’s the most incredible fishery in the world, and of course we want to keep it that way,” Mather said. “But the minute you take the value away from a fish it goes away. If you take the value away from these sturgeon, people forget about it and then it’s gone.”
Mather said it will take years to develop a catch and release fishery and adapt his business.