A 7-plus-foot-long female sturgeon allegedly killed by a poacher on the Columbia north of Tri-Cities, Wash., last weekend had many “spawning cycles in its future,” according to a state expert on the species.
Brad James of the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife estimates that the fish, dissected by another biologist, may have been “well into its 30s, and could even be over 40 years old.”
“It was not ripe this spring, but potentially ripe next spring,” he says.
Sturgeon can live to be 100 years old, and James says they typically only spawn every three to five years.
WDFW fish and wildlife officer Brian Fulton says he received information last Sunday night about a possible sturgeon poaching near Vernita Bridge. Even though it was his day off, he responded to the scene and stopped a pickup exiting the area on the north or Grant County side of the Columbia.
Inside were four adults ranging in age from approximately 25 to 55 years old as well as the 10-year-old son of one of the men.
“They initially denied having any fish or fishing,” Fulton says.
But an 88-inch-long sturgeon doesn’t blend in in a truck bed so well.
“It’s kind of hard to hide that big of a fish,” he says.
While sturgeon fishing on this stretch of the Columbia is currently open, the maximum size is 54 inches measured from the fish’s snout to the fork in its tail. The minimum is 43 inches, fork length.
James calls slot limits, which also apply to sturgeon elsewhere in the region, “one of the most successful rules” for protecting the spawners. Managers have also provided spawning sanctuaries for the breeders, such as the one that encompasses the 2.5 miles of the Columbia below Priest Rapids Dam just upstream from Vernita where sturgeon fishing isn’t allowed May 1-July 31.
That’s because the species is vulnerable to overfishing and poaching. A single man and his accomplice are believed to have killed 2,000 adult fish in the Lower Columbia before being caught, according to Craig Welch’s book, Shell Games. Wardens are especially paying attention to the reservoirs east of Bonneville Dam where they worry pressure from the international caviar market may further reduce the breeding stock.
Fulton says the main suspect gave a “full confession.” He cited him, the vehicle’s driver and the two other adults with unlawful fishing in the first degree, which will force each to pay a $378 fine, which includes court costs.
If, however, any challenge the ticket and are found guilty, it would be a gross misdemeanor which carries a maximum sentence of $5,000 and a year in jail.
WDFW also seized the 15-foot Grumman and rod used to allegedly catch the sturgeon.
He says that the boat and vehicle also match the description of complaints of illegal sturgeon fishing in the area last year. He says that officers tried to set up busts but couldn’t catch the man, though they got others allegedly poaching fish.
Unfortunately, the meat of the female sturgeon could not be salvaged and had to be disposed of in the wild, Fulton says.
“By the time we got the fish seized and into our vehicle it was 12:30 in the morning and our resources (for salvaging it) were few and far between,” he says.
He credits the anonymous tipster for helping make the case.
“If they hadn’t made that phone call, they definitely would have gotten away with it,” Fulton says.