Columbia sturgeon managers approved two days of retention on part of the lower river, but could not agree on opening the estuary later this month, similar to earlier this season.
They made the decisions nearing the four-hour mark of a complex conference call that saved “the best for last.”
It was a bit of gallows humor from WDFW’s Bill Tweit referencing the “loggerheads” that he had found himself with ODFW’s Tucker Jones back in early June when they discussed a late spring keeper sturgeon season.
Then, Oregon had wanted to open the waters inside the mouth of the Columbia, but Washington did not, so without an agreement the idea was kicked to this month.
Today, the positions were reversed, with Washington pushing and Oregon demurring.
“I don’t hear my constituents asking for this fishery,” was what Jones said it essentially boiled down to.
During public comment, one after another Astoria- and Portland-area-based guides, sportfishing representatives and organizations said they were opposed to an opener from the Wauna powerlines down to Buoy 10.
“I don’t think an estuary fishery is warranted,” said Bob Rees of Northwest Guides and Anglers Association.
He and others cited warm water temperatures — the Columbia below Skamokawa is currently running at nearly 70 degrees – heavy sea lion predation at Buoy 10, the lack of data on a fall keeper fishery – the last there was 20 years ago – and the plentitude of other opportunities at this moment and the relative lack on these waters in spring and the economic impact it would bring.
For their part, Ilwaco, Washington, charter skipper Butch Smith, Puget Sound Anglers state board president Ron Garner and Lower Columbia PSA chapter president Greg King supported the sturgeon opener.
“We all scream ‘opportunity, opportunity, opportunity,’ and now people don’t want it,” observed a skeptical King.
Public comment was followed by input from WDFW and ODFW staffers, and then a discussion about more salmon opportunity at Buoy 10. They disagreed on sturgeon, but Tweit, Jones and sportfishers from both sides of the big river wanted another hack at Chinook. They also heard tribal fishing plans for Zone 6, the Columbia Gorge.
After all that was eventually settled, the conversation turned to Estuary Sturgeon: The Sequel, and it was time to break out the popcorn.
Curt Melcher’s and Kelly Susewind’s representatives could at least, generally speaking, agree on one thing.
“Holding onto these fish for spring is the better investment,” Jones argued.
A total of 2,750 sturgeon between 44 and 50 inches fork length were on the table.
Because sturgeon don’t die like salmon after their spawning run, they will mostly still potentially be available for harvest.
Even if “rolling over” the fish wasn’t technically possible given the management plan, with the somewhat troubled state of the Columbia’s population Tweit said he wasn’t “going to lose sleep over that” outcome either.
However, he did take time to refute the arguments floated over from the south side of the river.
He said he didn’t want to “get in a rut” where lack of data determined whether fisheries could be held.
“Summer Chinook was closed for three decades,” Tweit pointed out, and yet that reopening has gone well.
“It may not result in a second day, but one day has a low probability of busting the quota,” he added.
With the proposed Saturday and Saturday openers, there would have been time between them for state staffers to crunch catch numbers and then model if another day of fishing was possible given how many were left to keep.
Tweit offered no counterargument on sea lion predation issues though in a sense it was encapsulated in his thoughts on water temperatures. He asked why catch-and-release sturgeon fishing is open this time of year, or why salmon fishing even is, if warm river flows were such a concern.
“Sturgeon are metabolically more tolerant than Chinook, many of which are listed,” he said, a reference to the several stocks under Endangered Species Act protections and which require close monitoring of the fisheries.
For the record, Jones was not buying the temperature argument either, but he also wasn’t in a buying mood at the end when Tweit asked him if it would be worth it to restate his arguments.
“I think I’m pretty firm,” Jones replied. “It just doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.”
They were at loggerheads again — at least in terms of the estuary. The Columbia from Wauna to Bonneville, as well as the Cowlitz, will open Sept. 12 and 19, daily limit one, annual limit two, with a quota of 1,140.
It is tempting to see this disagreement as tit for tat, ODFW scuttling WDFW after WDFW scuttled ODFW.
Jones argued it wasn’t like that.
“I want to assure you and everyone on the phone, I’m considering this in its own partition, on its own merits. Any characterization I’m not is flat-out wrong,” Jones said.
Both men, locked into this Columbia marriage of concurrence that seems rockier than it once was, took pains to say they weren’t accusing one another as well.
Tweit also took a moment to reflect on June’s decision, which he and a fact sheet prepared for the teleconference suggested centered around Covid-19 precautions.
Both states took fairly conservative steps in trying to slow the spread of coronavirus, but under Gov. Inslee’s direction WDFW went further than its counterpart across the Columbia, shutting down all fishing (and hunting) for six very long weeks, with the reopener of coastal fisheries delayed even longer.
Given shared management of the Columbia and what’s known as the Columbia Zone – ocean waters from Cape Falcon, Oregon, to the tip of Washington’s Long Beach Peninsula – ODFW was forced to follow WDFW’s lead on spring Chinook and halibut.
Taking issue with the Monday morning quarterbacking at the time, Tweit said that the Evergreen State’s reaction was based on the knowledge about the virus and the best advice of the moment.
As a hook-and-bullet reporter, some of the most fascinating stories have been those where I’ve been able to witness the sausage making of seasons as it happens. Today’s and June’s discussions and decisions were tediously long, and there’s likely more going on in the background that I don’t know about, but it has been quite enlightening to listen to the managers work. I have a lot more respect for what they do, what they’re up against, and how they navigate their world.
Estuary opener abandoned and perhaps a little punchy as the call now approached the four-hour mark, Tweit joked that he was tempted “to sneak in a few extra words” as he moved to only adopt the above-Wauna fishery.
He read the proposed reg in the fact sheet verbatim – adding, “I so want to say downstream” to include the estuary – and Jones seconded the motion.