With the opening of its salmon hatchery Saturday, the Okanagan Nation Alliance fisheries department has opened a new chapter in their work to bring back the sockeye salmon run.
“Many years ago, our elders and our grassroots people started asking questions about where is our salmon, giving us a mandate, telling us they wanted the salmon back,” said Penticton Indian Band Chief Jonathan Kruger.
Since 2010, the numbers of sockeye salmon returning to spawn in the Okanagan River have been coming back in record numbers. But with the new hatchery, Kruger expects those numbers will be shattered in coming years.
“We have been breaking records constantly and I think this year we are estimating 410,000 coming up this year, which is huge,” said. “Those numbers of salmon are going to come back more and more. We are going to be producing over 5 million salmon a year now, now that we have capacity to do this.”
The new hatchery was named Kt cp’alk’ stim to reflect the restoration work done over the past 15 years. Richard Armstrong, knowledge keeper for the PIB, said it is a word he heard often from his elders many years ago, as they shared their memories about what the salmon run once was.
“That word calls all the way back to our elders,” said Armstrong. “Kt cp’alk’ stim. That literally says cause to bring them back.
“They are looking down on us and saying we knew you would do it, because of that word. … cause to bring it back.”
“Our people mourned the loss of the salmon for many generations. However the flame, the hope they would return never died,” said Grand Chief Stewart Philip. “It was never extinguished and there was a small group of dedicated people that kept that flame alive, that kept that dream alive.”
The story of the hatchery is also one of collaboration between groups on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border not only between the ONA and the Colville Confederated Tribes, but the Grant and Chelan Public Utility Districts in Washington State, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, Greyback Construction, among others, to bring this project to reality.
Hydro power on the Columbia came at a cost, said Steve Wright, manager of the Chelan County Public Utility, one of the major funders of the $9 million cost of the hatchery.
That cost Wright referred to was to the bounty of the river and the culture of the First Nations that depended on the annual return of the salmon.
“Today we take another step towards reconciliation. Reconciliation that we can have both hydropower and fish and wildlife in our rivers,” said Wright, adding that the hatchery and the restoration work was making a historic difference in the region.