White sturgeon are the latest fish species to experience a population crash in the Columbia estuary. This is terrible news for sturgeon, for the ecosystem and for many local people who count on sturgeon for food, recreation and economic opportunity.
In 2012, the combined total catch for sport and commercial fishermen will be 9,600 in the regulation length range of 38 to 54 inches, down from a harvest of 14,488 in 2011. Per long-standing rules, larger breeding adults and immature smaller fish must be released. This 38 percent cut follows a 30 percent reduction last year and a 40 percent cut in 2010.
To a certain extent, a dilemma over sturgeon management is a logical side effect of the transfer of fishing interest to this species in the midst of the worst years of the salmon crisis in the early 1990s. In this, the current situation resembles similar circumstances worldwide in which fisheries experience problems in sequence - as pressure is shifted from preferred targets like salmon to formerly secondary species like sturgeon.
Sturgeon also confront additional challenges at the very time we humans have become more interested in catching and eating them. The two factors that are most highlighted are predation by Steller sea lions and a crash in smelt and lamprey that are key menu items for sturgeon.
Stellers have discovered the mass of sturgeon that congregate below Bonneville Dam and treat this barrier as an "all you can eat buffet." Enjoying federal marine mammal protections and avid support by the Humane Society, these sea lions also eat, maim and kill sturgeon in other areas of the lower river, out of sight of observers.
The drop in smelt and lamprey numbers is a serious crisis in its own right, beyond its impact up the food chain on sturgeon and humans. Changes in ocean chemistry, dams, loss of habitat, historic harvest practices and other issues all play a part. It will be a long-term project restoring their viability as local species.
In the short and medium term, hatcheries may represent a partial answer to the sturgeon shortfall, with upriver treaty tribes already moving ahead. On the lower river, such an approach obviously must be carefully examined to make certain there is enough food to support extra sturgeon, and to make sure hatchery sturgeon don't merely feed more sea lions.
In the longer term, we must continue looking for better ways to restore the natural functionality of the river. Much of this situation stems with the original lack of careful thought given to mitigating and avoiding the damage caused by the hydropower system. It has since improved, but there is still a long way to go.