Kokanee are coming back to Okanagan lakes in near-record numbers, according to recent ministry survey results, offering renewed optimism that summer fishery openings will continue next year.
After its annual survey of Okanagan main valley shorelines and lake tributaries, the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations is reporting impressive returns of shore- and stream-spawning kokanee.
In Okanagan Lake, a total of 294,000 fish were counted, the second-highest total in the last 20 years. Of these, shore-spawning were estimated at 276,000 and stream-spawning were counted at 18,000.
Fisheries biologist Paul Askey explained the count figures help ministry officials to gauge where to focus their attention next.
“Okanagan Lake was positive in the sense that the overall kokanee numbers in that lake have been increasing now for basically a decade or so since there was a crash in the late ’90s,” he said, adding that the count offered a “mixed result,” in the numbers came only from shoreline-spawners. “We’d like to see a little bit more balance between those.”
Askey attributed a portion of the imbalance to the cyclical nature of spawning among the land-locked sockeye salmon. A large shore-spawner return was noted in 2007, followed by improved stream-spawning numbers.
“It might just be cycling, and then next year the stream-spawners will bump back up. The lake’s gone through a big transition, so it’s hard to say where it’s going to all settle out,” he said. “The good news is that the lake can hold all the fish, and so now maybe we should just be continuing to work on taking care of the streams around the lake to get those populations up there.”
Skaha Lake’s population reached 37,000, which is similar to numbers posted in the last three years. Askey said the consistency is a good sign, although it may be tested with the burgeoning return of sockeye to the lake recorded this year. Sockeye have the potential to skew kokanee count results, as well as tax the ecological resources.
“It’s hard to tell which ones are sockeye and which ones are big kokanee. There were some sockeye in there. Fish seem to be holding pretty steady, and that’s an ongoing experiment to see if the kokanee can sustain the addition of sockeye going into there,” he said.
“If numbers stay strong then we can expect fishery openings for kokanee on Okanagan Lake next year,” Askey said, adding there were never any guarantees.
For Wood Lake, a popular fishing hole for kokanee, stream-spawners were counted at 8,300 and shore-spawners were tallied at 2,500. The ministry indicated this is close to the average abundance for Wood Lake shore-spawners during recent years.
Kalamalka Lake’s kokanee population was figured at 26,000, while Coldstream Creek’s total reached 20,000 — well above the three-year average of 6,000.
The ministry partnered with the Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation, which allowed for a complete census of all kokanee entering Wood Lake’s primary spawning tributary, Middle Vernon Creek.