VANCOUVER - Sturgeon catches in the lower Columbia River need to be chopped between 10 percent and 30 percent in the next three years to halt the decline in the population.

Washington and Oregon biologists delivered that message to sportsmen earlier this month in Vancouver.

But the actual magnitude of the cut, and how sport and commercial fishing will be reduced, remains an open question.

Brad James of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife said the population of legal-size sturgeon (42 to 60 inches) in the Columbia between the ocean and Bonneville Dam appears to have declined at a 4 percent annual rate in the late 1990s, before showing an upswing the past couple years.

But he also said there are substantial difficulties estimating the population of a fish that moves around in 140 miles of river and also takes sojourns in the ocean to places such as Grays Harbor and Willapa Bay.

James said he didn't have a lot of conficence in the estimate of the legal population or the growth rate of younger fish.

This is the final year of a three-year management plan that caps the combined sport and commercial sturgeon catch at 50,000 fish annually. That harvest is split 40,000 for sportsmen and 10,000 for the gillnet fleet.

James said a reduction in the sport-commercial harvest to 45,000 a year appears to be enough to halt the decline in the population. Cutting the harvest by 14,000 - down to 36,000 sturgeon a year - should be sufficient to have the population on a fast rebuilding curve.

Where in that range of 36,000 to 45,000 the annual harvest should fall is a question for the public and the Washington and Oregon fish and wildlife commissions, James said.

The Vancouver Wildlife League has called for a 25 percent reduction in the harvest, down to 37,500 a year, said Larry Snyder, league president.

"For the first time, think of the sturgeon first and the user groups second," he said. "They should be your No. 1 client, not us."

Butch Smith of the Ilwaco Charter Association said the rate of rebuilding the sturgeon population needs to be balanced with the economic costs of drastically reducing fishing.

"I want the resource to grow," Smith said. "That's a no-brainer. But I don't want it to grow so much at the risk of bait shops, hotels, motels and the infrastructure that keeps my economy going."

Sport fishing for sturgeon in the lower Columbia skyrocketed when salmon and steelhead runs were poor in the 1980s. The big, slow-growing fish fueled 200,000 angling trips a year before intermittent closures in the past two years to prevent over-harvest. This year, retention of sturgeon in the lower Columbia River was closed Sundays and Mondays from March 1 through May 13. It has been closed entirely since July 25 and doesn't reopen until Nov. 23. Reductions in sturgeon fishing tend to pit the estuary against the rest of the lower Columbia.

Sturgeon catch rates in the estuary during the summer are the best in the river. In the past decade, the huge growth in the estuary fishery has shifted much of the catch to the coast. Sturgeon fishing in the rest of the lower Columbia is better during the spring and fall. This year, for example, the high harvest in the estuary is at the expense of anglers in the Columbia Gorge, said Liz Hamilton of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association.

The closure that started July 25 was scheduled to end Sept. 30. But to avoid exceeding catch quotas, it was extended through Nov. 22. That hurts the Columbia Gorge, where sturgeon fishing is popular in October and November.

Sheilla Cannon of Cascade Locks, Ore., said it takes the Columbia Gorge and middle river (Corbett to Wauna) five months to catch what is taken in the estuary just in June. Several anglers suggested splitting the lower Columbia and allocating separate sturgeon quotas, based on historical averages, for waters upstream and down of Puget Island near Cathlamet.

But the years selected to compile the average make a big difference. Using a 20-year historical average results in a bigger share for the upper river. Using a shorter, more recent, time frame puts more fish in the estuary's allotment.

Hamilton said anything that avoids long fishing closures needs to be considered. She suggested closing certain days of the week year-round, increasing the minimum or decreasing the maximum size of legal sturgeon, or reducing the annual harvest to five fish.

She also suggested beginning the quota counting on Oct. 1 instead of Jan. 1. That would allow the upper part of the river to have its fall and spring fisheries, with closures coming in the summer. Eric Linde, a guide, called for reducing the commercial fishery. Washington's Fish and Wildlife Commission will discuss the sturgeon situation Dec. 6-7 in Mount Vernon, and give negotiating instructions to its staff. Oregon's commission will do the same Dec. 13 in Eugene. Staff members from the two departments then will negotiate a harvest level and work with sport and commercial fishermen to structure their fisheries.

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