States Can’t Agree On Columbia Estuary Keeper Opener
Editor’s note: Final update, 7:45 p.m., June 8, 2020.
Columbia fishing managers from Oregon and Washington couldn’t come to an agreement this afternoon on a one-day sturgeon retention opener in the estuary.
Officials attempted to find compromises but after nearly three hours on the phone, found themselves at intractable “loggerheads.” Catch-and-release fishing will remain open.
Oregon’s Tucker Jones supported the ODFW and WDFW staff recommendation to open the big river below the Wauna powerlines this Saturday until 2 p.m., with potentially another opener later in the month depending on catch rates and how many of the 2,750 sturgeon available in the quota were left over.
But Washington’s Bill Tweit was more in favor of holding onto the quota until September, when catch rates are lower, to provide more days of fishing and economic activity for lower river communities.
There was no clear consensus among sportfishing advisors, guides and others on the call on what to do.
The Portland-area-based Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association and Northwest Guides and Anglers Association as well as guide Bill Monroe Jr. were all in favor; guide Kelly Short, Ilwaco charter owner Mike Cassinelli and Ron Garner of Puget Sound Anglers wanted to reserve the quota for September.
ODFW and WDFW jointly manage the shared Columbia and even if dialed back to be more conservative, it’s uncommon for a staff proposal not to move forward because state managers can’t reach an agreement.
Two weeks ago Jones and Tweit agreed not to open more spring Chinook days because of conservation concerns and run uncertainty. Their back and forth this afternoon made for fascinating listening.
Jones expressed disappointment, shock and frustration, saying that it felt like WDFW was “jettisoning” the preseason sturgeon management plan and that he was seeing a trend he “wasn’t particularly fond of,” Washington not compromising on Columbia issues.
“I can assure you that is not the case,” Tweit replied. “There’s nothing for us to gain in being unwilling to compromise.”
There was a long pause and ultimately Jones agreed that on balance it was true, but over the last 12 months he said he felt it had shifted.
For him, sturgeon retention now was a chance to offer a fishery at a time of diminished opportunities.
For Tweit, the tradeoff of a “derby-style” opener that might be a quality chance for sharpies but not others meant he couldn’t support the tradeoff.
As they debated, Jones asked an ODFW manager how much a one-day June opener would leave for September instead of adding a second June day. Staff from Oregon and Washington guestimated it would leave five to seven days of quota available.
For a moment late in the call another compromise proposal was on the table: ODFW opening the Willamette concurrent to the estuary to distribute effort and catch.
But even then Tweit felt that there were “enough downsides that it’s not worth it in the estuary.”
Jones disagreed, saying the value of the fishery there in spring was known, 10,000 to 15,000 angler trips. Kept catch was estimated to range from 700 to 1,100 sturgeon.
He speculated fall wouldn’t generate that kind of effort and business, and holding it now would be additive to plans guides and anglers have already made for September.
September will see fewer salmon opportunities on the Columbia than usual due to a low coho run and restrictions on Chinook due to catch elsewhere.
Tweit said there had been room for compromise on sturgeon coming into the call but at some point he just needed to make a decision and that sometimes it would be different than Jones. Most times they agreed, but this time they didn’t, he said.
“So I guess at this point we are at loggerheads,” said Jones as the conversation, which also touched on tribal salmon seasons further up the Columbia, hit the two-hour, 57-minute and 30-second mark.
“I’m afraid we are,” replied Tweit.
Given declining populations, Columbia sturgeon has been a touchy issue in recent years between Washington and Oregon, with the former state at one time wanting to move completely to catch-and-release fishing but the latter balking and limited openers continuing.
There are also issues over managing salmon and steelhead allocations on the big river.
This year, the question of when sturgeon retention opener would occur has been somewhat of a victim of the coronavirus pandemic as some rural communities have worried about large influxes of anglers from urban areas. Except for halibut, fishing is now open again. But it also feels like more is at play.
For one call attendee, a long time outdoor reporter, the debate was both unusual and a long time coming.
For Astoria guide Jody Mather, it was another chance to call for Lower Columbia opportunity, an issue of equity this year. His part of the river was left out of the spring Chinook fishery due to low returns to the Cowlitz and Lewis to get broodstock to the hatcheries. He called for all of 2020’s sturgeon quota available below Bonneville to go to the estuary.
As it stands, an ODFW press release out after the call ended stated managers aren’t ready to propose a sturgeon retention season format above Wauna, where 1,140 keepers are estimated to be available, but said that “Oregon may investigate opportunities for the lower Willamette River,” where 690 sturgeon could be harvested, according to abundance estimates.