Northwest no limits controversy update

RICHLAND, Wash.  An early May creel report from Washington's Yakima River, a tributary of the Columbia, has bass anglers irate and fearful that it indicates widespread carnage occurred during the spawn on bass fisheries in Washington and Oregon, where limits have been lifted.

From May 1 to 8, anglers harvested 6,721 bass from the lower part of the river, according to Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW). Additionally, 41 anglers interviewed kept 362 fish, releasing only 13.

"Anglers were primarily fishing for smallmouth bass, with a few anglers targeting channel catfish," WDFW said.

In the wake of this report, Lonnie Johnson, Oregon B.A.S.S. Nation conservation director, has asked the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission for harvest numbers on the Columbia, Umpqua, and John Day Rivers. He is not expecting a quick response, primarily because he and many others believe that the decision to remove limits was based more on politics than science and officials will be reluctant to reveal the consequences of their actions.

"I wonder if those meat anglers are even thinking about the depletion of the fishery, or what they will fish for next year when the salmon runs are still low and the smallmouth bass fishery has been decimated," Johnson said. "Probably not, I would guess. They're thinking, 'Let's live in the moment and let tomorrow be damned.'"

With the National Marine Fisheries Service applying pressure, both Washington and Oregon removed limits on non-native bass in some waters, citing predation on sagging salmon, steelhead, and trout fisheries as the primary reason. In reality, habitat degradation for agriculture and development and dams that block migration are the primary culprits. But bass and other warmwater species, established in some of these altered fisheries for a century or more, are convenient scapegoats.

"The real problems are being ignored and they are blaming the bass," said Justin Blackmore, president of the Central Oregon Bass Club. "The deregulation will have almost no impact on the other species (salmon, steelhead, and trout) but will destroy the bass fishery.

"They decided what to do without any sound research. The result is overfishing of large fish."

Eradication of bass will be impossible, he continued, but a world-class fishery will have been destroyed, leaving only "small, stunted fish" that will appeal to no one, while declining coldwater fisheries still will not have improved.

The cold-water war against bass heated up a couple of years ago, when Washington removed size and bag limits for bass and walleye on the Columbia and Snake Rivers and their tributaries above McNary Dam on the Washington/Oregon border. Last summer, Oregon bowed to pressure from the federal government, the tribes, and native fish groups. Several months later, Washington completed the anti-bass strategy, lifting limits on the boundary portion of the Columbia.

In an attempt to rationalize the move, Oregon's Mike Gauvin, recreational fishing program manager, said, "First and foremost, though, we’re doing this to simplify and streamline the regulations.”

But on behalf of bass anglers, Johnson offered an option that was just as simple: Make the statewide bag limit 5, with one over 15 inches.

Of course, the recommendation was rejected, as the commission removed limits for bass, walleye, and catfish. As it did so, though, Johnson said that one commissioner acknowledged that the action was going to anger a large constituency. Gauvin responded that it sends a good message to the salmon recovery community.

"That sort of wraps the whole thing into a single sentence," said Johnson.