OLYMPIA — A limited catch-and-keep white sturgeon retention season similar to last year became possible following a public meeting Friday, Feb. 9, in Olympia.
The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission, a citizen appointed panel by the governor to set policy for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, decided at the meeting to encourage WDFW’s acting director to begin discussions with Oregon fishery managers to develop a limited retention fishery in the Lower Columbia, similar to that in 2017. A presentation by WDFW staff showed that the number of adult sturgeon has increased in recent years, while the number of juvenile sturgeon has continued to decline, according to a press release from the commission.
“We’re already ahead of last year,” said Coho Charters owner Butch Smith, citing an increasing number of adult sturgeon measured by fishery managers in Oregon and Washington. “Hopefully, we’ll be getting a new season announced.”
Fishery managers estimate the population of legal-size (38- to 54-inch) sturgeon on the Columbia at around 199,000, an 18 percent increase from the 165,000 in May 2017, according to a joint staff report issued by WDFW and ODFW in January. The latest figures support a trend of increasing numbers since 2012, encouraging news for managers and anglers. Still considered to be an unhealthy total, the abundance of adult spawner-sized sturgeon has also increased from 5,950 in 2016 to 10,400 in 2017.
Sturgeon bring big business
In June 2017, the fishery opened for a limited retention season after three years of only catch-and-release fishing. The rare season brought thousands of fishermen to the Lower Columbia, giving local ports and businesses an early-summer boost in revenue.
“We had approximately 15,000 anglers participate in that five-day fishery last year in the estuary,” Smith said.
“It was a huge shot in the arm compared to the previous three years of catch-and-release,” he said. “We had double the anglers in that five days than there were the prior three years.”
Figures from WDFW reflected the popularity of the fishery with anglers making more than 10,000 trips and catching more than 2,400 keeper sturgeon — or 81 percent of the guideline — in only the first four days on the Lower Columbia. The final catch totaled 3,235 legal keeper sturgeon from 13,713 trips. Anglers released 3,429 sub-legal sturgeon, 3,075 oversized white sturgeon and 14 green sturgeon. In the estuary, sampling crews observed 1,359 white sturgeon kept, or 42 percent of the total catch.
At least one more meeting between WDFW and ODFW officials will be held before an official decision is announced, but Smith is optimistic about the outcome.
“It was just such a good thing that happened last year,” he said. “I look for a season to be announced one way or the other in late March or early April.”