If you’re planning to hop in a boat this summer and pull a sturgeon out of the Columbia River — you might not need that big icebox to bring one home.
That enormous Northwest fish is now “catch-and-release” only, on the lower Columbia. Biologists are still studying the causes of the sturgeon’s slow decline there.
That likely means many years of reeling big fish in, and tossing them back.
Professional fishing guide, Bob Rees, steers his boat out of the Oregon town of Hammond, near the mouth of the Columbia. He’s taking a boatful of customers into shallow water to hook sturgeon.
“If you drop off the ledge just in the shipping channel over here, it can get as deep as 57 foot. There’s this big sand tongue that comes down here — Desdemona Sands — and the fish come up on the shallower sands, and feed for bait fish and sand shrimp,” Rees explains.
Rees says he knows at least 20 good spots to catch sturgeon out here. He checks to see where the fish are.
“You can see these black hashmarks on the screen here, are sturgeon down on the bottom of the river. Have you seen a sturgeon up close before? They’re pretty unique looking,” Rees says.
Sturgeon have long whiskers, distinctive ridges along their sides, and sucker-like mouths. They seem to live forever — and they just keep growing. They can be a dozen feet long, hundreds of pounds, and they can live to be 100 years old.
They live in salt and freshwater. The species has been around since the dinosaur era.
But sturgeon have struggled in recent years. They were overfished in the 1900’s, but came back. Now they’re down again. Rees says the same sea lions that have eaten salmon in the Columbia have also chased sturgeon east to Bonneville Dam and south up the Willamette River.
“There’s a reason these fish have survived for 200 million years, they kind of know what they’re doing. We certainly don’t want to have our fingerprint on their decimation after 200 million years of success,” Rees says.
State officials also connect the recent decline in adult sturgeon numbers to sea lions. But Tony Nigro with Oregon’s Department of Fish and Wildlife says there’s another big concern with lower Columbia sturgeon: not enough juveniles.
“Annual recruitment of sturgeon —new sturgeon, young sturgeon — into the population, has actually declined in the last five years,” Nigro explains.
Nigro says the younger fish might be spending longer in the ocean. Or they might be victims of poor river conditions 15 or 20 years ago, when they would’ve first hatched. Or it could be something else.
Fishery managers in Oregon and Washington don’t want to sit by and watch the sturgeon decline.
Nigro says there was enough uncertainty to convince fishery managers to make a big change this summer. Oregon and Washington officials mandated that if you catch a sturgeon — of any size — in the lower Columbia, you have to unhook it and toss it back in the river.
“We want to give the resource the benefit of the doubt right now because of these unknowns, specifically relative to sea lion predation and because of the recent reduction in productivity — and until we see these populations turning around — let’s just remove the human harvest component from the equation,” Nigro says.
Fishing guides like Bob Rees meantime, are trying to adjust.
They have to sell an experience, rather than dinner.
On this morning, Rees finds a spot away from the bait-nibbling crabs. His customer, Andy Bonacato is fromWisconsin, and out on a business trip. He’s the first in the boat to hook a sturgeon. He’s alternately pulling in and letting out line, and dancing around the back of Rees’ boat, as a big sturgeon battles below.
Rees reaches and pulls a four-foot fish into the boat and sets up for the photo op.
“I’ll tell you what, I’ll grab him around the tail, and then support him underneath - and then you grab up by the pectoral fin,” Rees says as Bonacato admires what he calls a “prehistoric-looking beast.”
Rees estimates that sturgeon at about 52 inches long.
“That would’ve been legal under normal circumstances,” Rees says.
Of course, circumstances have changed.
Bob Rees’ customers hooked three fish in less than an hour. They were all “keeper” size — before sturgeon fishing went “catch-and-release” only. Bonacato is from out of state, so he didn’t mind.
“Not really, especially on a trip like this. I mean I enjoy eating fish for sure – but that’s the excitement right there, the reason I’m out here,” Boncato says.
Andy Bonacato has a sense of humor about the one that got away, but fishing guides are very worried that their customers will get away.
Bob Halderman booked this trip so that he and Bonacato and a few others could catch — and keep — sturgeon. He’s not happy the rules changed.
“I wouldn’t have booked a trip to come catch-and-release on purpose,” Halderman says.
The fishing was so good in the middle of June, that state officials changed policy with two days notice, to the chagrin of Bob Rees.
“They shut the season off ten days earlier than was modeled for. And, I lost two trips out of about six that I had,” Rees says.
Tony Nigro with Oregon Fish and Wildlife says these sturgeon aren’t headed for the Endangered Species list.
“What these trends have put at risk is the fisheries — how much we can harvest, where and how much. We do not believe these trends foretell a population decline that puts sturgeon at risk long-term,” Nigro says.
Sturgeon fishing is down — in economic numbers. Commercial and sport fishing contributed a little less than $3 million in 2012. That’s less than half the annual average over the last decade.
Back on the fishing boat, Bob Rees is uneasy about the shift toward catch-and-release.
“This fishery is going to get more challenging as time progresses,” Rees says.
A minute before Rees was ready to pull the anchor and find a new spot, the fishing guide is leaning over the side of his boat, suddenly watching the biggest catch of the day.
“Look at that bad boy, he’s oversized alright,” Rees says.
Of course being oversized matters less, when you have to throw back whatever size you catch.
State fish and wildlife officials plan to watch sturgeon numbers closely, to see what effect catch-and-release is having. But they’re expecting a decade or more of catch-and-release, to give the ancient fish time to rebound.