For now the smelt returns to the Columbia River remain on life support, and in critical condition.
No decision was made yesterday (Dec. 17) on the fate of the Cowlitz River smelt dip-net fishery when the Columbia River Compact met to discuss the state of Columbia River smelt and sturgeon.
However they decided on the Columbia mainstem smelt fishery and to keep the sturgeon fishery status quo for now with their fate being decided after the New Year.
The Columbia mainstem will be open for sport dip-net smelt fishing daily Jan. 1 to March 31 from the mouth to Bonneville Dam with a 10 pound daily limit (down from 25 pounds in past years).
Fisheries managers are predicting another poor smelt return in 2010, but it could be somewhat better than this past year.
The commercial catch in 2009 totaled 12,100 pounds [5,900 in 2008] from the Cowlitz River, and 5,600 pounds [11,400] from the Columbia River mainstem. The record lowest total commercial catch since 1938 was 200 pounds in 2005, and the second lowest was 8,300 pounds in 2007.
Commercial catches in the 1990s totaled millions of pounds, and stayed relatively high through the early 2000s.
The National Marine Fisheries Service proposed smelt for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act, and a final outcome will be made by this spring. The listing of smelt spawning in rivers would cover all areas south of the Nass River in northern British Columbia.
“[State Fish and Wildlife] is waiting to hear from the feds, and in between that there will be a public meeting [in the Longview/Kelso area] to discuss smelt in early January on the tributary [sport and commercial] fisheries,” said Joe Hymer, a state Fish and Wildlife biologist. “There is a possibility of some opportunity, and it could be a more conservative fishery.”
Details of the public meeting will be announced next week.
For now the sport and commercial mainstem fisheries will remain at the Level One fisheries, which are made when there is great uncertainty in run strength or indications for a poor smelt return.
Last year, the tributary sport smelt dip-net fishing season was restricted to the Cowlitz River from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Saturdays only, with a 10-pound per person daily limit.
As for the white sturgeon fishery it will remain under the same current regulations in the Columbia River.
Hymer said there are concerns about the population itself, and the abundance number of legals [sturgeon between 38-inch minimum to 54-inch maximum] is estimated to be just under 100,000.
“Some other not so positive signs were the sport catch of sub-legal sturgeon has dropped off quite a bit in recent years, and on top of that you have stellar sea lions impacting and preying on the broodstock [white] sturgeon,” Hymer said.
Abundance estimates for harvestable size sturgeon were at 123,400 fish in 2006; 135,400 in 2007; and 97,000 in 2008.
An alternative indicator of legal-size abundance, harvest per angler trip in recreation fisheries, remained relatively stable from 1995 through 2007, but declined by 24 percent in 2008 from the previous 13-year average.
The sea lions preying on white sturgeon is a new and growing threat, which has been seen by fisheries officials around Bonneville Dam and Beacon Rock.
Estimated consumption of white sturgeon near the base of the dam alone has increased from 413 fish in 2006 to 1,710 in 2009.
The sport catch estimate in the Lower Columbia River in 2009 is projected to be 18,129 white sturgeon from 115,231 angler trips, which is the lowest catch since 1990.
“The sturgeon catch in the Willamette [on the Oregon side of the Columbia] has also gotten bigger, and so there is some concerns about that as well,” Hymer said.
The joint fisheries staff are recommending that the current four-year sturgeon management agreement be renewed for one year  with the combined harvest guideline being reduced from the current 40,000 fish [36,800 actual harvest]. Although the new guideline has not yet been developed, initial estimates indicate a reduction of up to 35 percent may be needed to compensate for reduced sub-legal and legal fish abundance.
Because Washington and Oregon fisheries officials are in the final year of the current joint agreement from 2006-09, a new management agreement will be in place until a meeting on Feb. 18 when they discuss future sturgeon fishing seasons, and also the spring salmon seasons for the Columbia River.
The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission will also hold public hearing on the sturgeon issue Jan. 8-9 in Olympia.