Soapbox Update: State Agencies are Reading the Water by Bob Rees September 29, 2016

State Agencies are Reading the Water

It was an unusual sight on the lower Columbia River, and I’m not talking about the humpback whales that were breaching in front of Hammond. Spotter planes, the ones you read about in Alaska or maybe have seen circling the waters off of the coast of Washington or Oregon in the last few years, when the sardine seiners were going full speed ahead out of Astoria for many summers running. But there were in the river, just off of the Washington shoreline, taking advantage of the hordes of anchovies that have been bumping our gear while in pursuit of Buoy 10 salmon for the last several years. My initial, selfish thought was: Good, thin some of those outta here, there’s too much competition for my bait when trolling for salmon in these waters.

But, we (the Association of Northwest Steelheaders) have been working on forage fish protections for years, primarily targeting the unmanaged forage fish that few of us have heard about (and I have a degree in fisheries…).  With the recent Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission decision to protect forage fish, such as the Pacific Saury and Pacific sand lance, we’re in a pretty good place. Now we have to ask ourselves, especially in the wake of the crash of the Pacific sardine population, what are we going to do to protect sensitive stocks of forage fish that we actually “manage,” and I use that term loosely.


A poacher recently retrieved from the stomach of a sea bass off of the mouth of the Columbia

Just because some stocks of fish are “managed,” doesn’t mean that they are actively managed. In order to manage a population, you actually have to know how many there are, to actually manage a population. Simple science, I know (no one needs a degree in Fisheries Technology to figure that one out).

Admittedly I don’t actually know when the last stock assessments were made for anchovies, herring or many of the other forage prey species but given the exorbitant costs and resources needed to assess a population, I can surmise that it’s been a while since any of these species has been assessed. Sardines apparently are assessed on an annual basis since they are an important commercial fishery that warrants such a frequent assessment. Anchovies in the Pacific are divvied up into sub-populations; the Southern, Central and Northern populations with the Central population being largely off of the California coast and Mexico.

Well, it turns out that our northern population has got fairly popular in China, Japan and Korea lately. So much so, that about 5,200 metric tons of this important forage base have already been harvested from Oregon waters, largely from the lower Columbia River. Now I likely don’t have to tell you folks the importance of this forage prey base to just about everyone that fished down there this year. Did you see the humpback whales breaching in front of Hammond in August? It made for an incredible sight for when the fishing was slow this year, which was often. Diving pelicans, the common murre, and certainly our salmon, harbor porpoise and whales all rely on anchovies for a large part of their diet. It’s obviously pretty important that we manage these species closely to ensure we have enough to grow our stocks of fish and wildlife.

That’s why it was encouraging to see the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife limit the commercial seine fishery in the lower Columbia. There has been a historical seine fishery for decades on the lower Columbia but not surprisingly, worldwide demand for forage fish is what is driving interest in these fish, especially with the collapse of the sardine fishery. As our population grows, so will the demand on these little fish and every species of fish feasibly harvested from our world’s oceans.

As I recently wrote, we’re going to have to rely more on forecasting in advance the conservation needs of our ecosystems, so that we can prevent over-harvesting before reactionary regulations need to be put in place, which only act to burden existing fisheries, fishermen and the communities that have come to rely on this resource to fuel an economy.

So, what’s up next? Anyone who has been around salmon or halibut fishing west of the Cascades knows about the herring of Yaquina Bay. It’s been a long time since the seine fleet has prosecuted a fishery for herring in Yaquina Bay, but that may soon change. It’s a fair possibility that we may see a herring roe fishery that allows up to 20% of the spawning population of herring to be removed from Yaquina Bay. Now I’m not sure if there is a carrying capacity for spawning herring in Yaquina Bay, or any Oregon estuary for that matter but I do know the historical abundance of west coast herring is far less than it used to be, at least in Oregon’s estuaries. Furthermore, do we really think it’s a good idea to remove 20% of a spawning population of critical forage fish when we don’t have a west coast herring stock assessment, we don’t have a northern anchovy stock assessment and we have a collapsed population of sardines in the Pacific? I don’t think I need to answer that question for you.

Stay tuned on this issue and the many more issues that are critical to our west coast fisheries. Let’s not forget, between all the political ads on TV, football season is starting and most importantly, it’s time to put away fall Chinook, crab and wild game for the winter, we have to get a robust Magnuson Stevens Act passed through the next Congress and over the President’s desk to continue to meet the needs of our future.