Celebrating sockeye returns

Writer dives into the history and restoration of sockeye salmon to the Okanagan River system.

Fresh salmon await buyers at Okanagan fishmonger

Fresh salmon await buyers at Okanagan fishmonger

Did you know that once upon a time we had salmon living in Okanagan Lake?

With the annual sockeye salmon run now en route to Osoyoos, I sat down with Jon Crofts from Codfathers Seafood Market in Kelowna for a history lesson on this incredible fish and the efforts being made to  stabilize and rebuild the declining wild Okanagan sockeye population and to revitalize the Okanagan Nation salmon fishery.

The salmon would currently be mid-way through their 1,200 kilometre journey up the Columbia River from the Pacific Ocean to their spawning grounds in the Okanagan River.

So what happened to the sockeye salmon in Okanagan Lake?

In the mid-1800’s, the sockeye fishery began to change dramatically with the arrival of European traders and ranchers.

Settlement along the river, the building of dams, channelization, commercial fishing, irrigation and domestic water use damaged salmon habitat, interrupted migration routes, reduced stocks entering the rivers to spawn, increased competition for the resource and destroyed traditional fishing sites.

The Okanagan River is the largest of three remaining Columbia River sockeye runs.  Of the total sockeye return to the Columbia Basin, over 80% are Okanagan stock.  Since the 1990’s, the Okanagan sockeye escapement has fluctuated between 5,000 and 210,000.  Years when only a few thousand sockeye returned to the spawning grounds had conservationists fearing for its extinction.

Now for the good news.  Through the restoration work of the Okanagan Nations Alliance and favourable environmental conditions — a record sockeye salmon run of up to 500,000 fish is expected to return this year.

The ONA has been working with many agencies in Canada and the U.S. to restore the Okanagan River to its natural state and reopen the historical migration route for salmon and other native fish species.  The Okanagan sockeye Reintroduction Program, initiated under the guidance of Okanagan elders, is currently in Year eight of 12 of stocking marked sockeye fry into Skaha Lake to determine the feasibility of reintroduction.  The goal is to continue this work allowing the salmon population back in to Skaha Lake and then hopefully Okanagan Lake.

Can you imagine?  One day we may be able to enjoy sockeye salmon in Okanagan Lake.

Jon and Anne-Marie Crofts have become involved with this conservation work and have signed an agreement with the ONA allowing Jon to process and distribute the salmon in the valley.  They are working on setting up a direct sales site in Osoyoos and Jon has trained a new staff of fishmongers to work there.

They will also have a special processing room at the back of the Codfathers’ current shop operation set up to exclusively handle these local fish.  Jon is thrilled to be a part of this exciting project.

“This is a really good thing for the Valley,” he said. “It’s not very often that you get to see such a dramatic effect following conservation efforts.”

Jon wants “to make sure that the fish are respected, taken care of and managed locally,” and commented thatthis initiative will also “secure local this food source for the Valley for years to come.”

Interesting fact:  did you know that Kokanee found in the Okanagan are related to sockeye salmon?  Once upon a time, perhaps blocked by ice, some of the salmon became landlocked in Okanagan Lake and could not leave for the run. These fish then evolved into Kokanee.

How can you get involved? The Pacific Salmon Foundation and the ONA have joined forces to host a gala dinner and auction to raise funds for Pacific salmon conservation, restoration and enhancement in the Okanagan.

The gala dinner and auction will be held on Aug. 2 at the Delta Grand Okanagan Hotel in Kelowna. The theme for the dinner is “Many Happy Returns” and will celebrate the historic return of sockeye salmon to the Okanagan region.

All net proceeds raised at this event will be directed towards Pacific salmon conservation, restoration and enhancement in the Okanagan region.

Tickets are $100 per person and are available through the Okanagan Nation Alliance office.  For more information, purchase of tickets, or to offer a donation or sponsorship, contact Tracey Bussanich at 250-707-0095 ext. 130 or 250-470-7048.  She can also be reached by email at tbussanich@syilx.org.