Lower numbers of sockeye salmon coming upstream this year isn’t a cause for worry according to a fisheries biologist with the Okanagan Nation Alliance.
Howie Wright said they are still expecting up to 110,000 sockeye to make it over Wells Dam and into Osoyoos Lake. In 2012, some 327,000 made the journey.
“Salmon runs are cyclical, so there are different highs and lows. It’s within what we were forecasting for this year,” said Wright.
While it may not be as high as some of the recent record returns, there are enough sockeye to allow for the opening of some of the fisheries that are already underway, including the test commercial fishery and the recreational fishery, which opened Aug. 1.
“And of course there is the food fishery that is still going on for the Okanagan Nation,” said Wright.
He has noticed however, that what people are calling low numbers of spawners has changed dramatically from the 90s, when the run was in danger.
“It was as low as 5,000 with just a couple of thousand on the spawning grounds,” said Wright.
The dramatic change is the result of several factors, including the ONA’s own 12-year salmon restoration plan, now in year nine.
“It’s a combination. Culturally for the Okanagan, they’ve revived a lot of their protocols and ceremonies for the salmon,” said Wright. “We have also improved a lot on the water management side and habitat restoration,” said Wright, adding that there is also less harvesting happening in the lower river.
“They are not able to harvest large numbers of sockeye in the lower river because of conservation concerns over other stocks,” he said.
Another factor is the annual release of sockeye fry into Skaha Lake, which will be increased in the near future after a hatchery, now under construction on Penticton Indian Band lands, goes into operation.
That, said Howie, will allow them to release more fry into Skaha, which should mean larger returns, but it will also have other effects.
“It will allow us to increase the hatchery reintroduction in Skaha, and we will get a better idea of the interaction with kokanee in the lake because we will be able to put more fry in there.
So far we haven’t seen any impact to the kokanee in the lake, so we will be able to push that to get a better understanding,” said Wright.
The construction of the hatchery marks a milestone for the ONA, the result of seven years of planning and negotiations, and is part of the long-term program to restore the range of sockeye in the upper Okanagan watershed, Okanagan Lake and Skaha Lake systems.
“Bringing the salmon back has been a journey and has taken a lot of hard work and this is one more step to ensure we will always have salmon,” said PIB Chief Jonathan Kruger.
Last year saw spawning sockeye making their way into Skaha Lake for the first time in many years. While a Skaha sockeye fishery is likely a way off, Wright said it is a definite possibility in the future.
“The main difference between Skaha and Osoyoos is we have an idea of how many are spawning. We are just understanding the capacity of Skaha Lake, said Wright.
“There might be those opportunities in the future. It will depend on how the program works and we are still working on the fishway there and the passage.”