Starting just after midnight Friday, anglers will have a rare opportunity to fish for sockeye salmon in Osoyoos Lake.
The recreational fishery is thanks to record numbers of sockeye returning to the Columbia River system — the largest run since 1938 — with a large portion of them crossing over the Wells Dam and into the Okanagan River to spawn. That, in turn, is thanks to years of restoration efforts by the Okanagan Nation, working in co-operation with federal and provincial agencies in both the U.S. and Canada.
“We’re expecting a banner year. Over a half a million sockeye are coming back to the Columbia, of which Okanagan is the major stock,” said Richard Bussanich, a fisheries biologist with the Okanagan Nation Alliance. “We anticipate over 80 per cent of fish coming up the Columbia are destined for Osoyoos Lake and the Okanagan River.”
Bussanich said the run is going to easily meet the minimum 30,000 sockeye on the spawning grounds for the conservation efforts.
“We’re going to probably exceed the adult spawning capacity, and that is one of the reasons we are looking to the fishery to help mitigate. That’s the limiting factor right now, in terms of restoration efforts,” said Bussanich. Monitoring of tagged fish, he continued, show that there are an estimated 80,000 sockeye in Osoyoos Lake right now.
“Right now, we are looking at between 30,000 and 100,000 fish available for harvest,” said Bussanich. That amount will be divided between an Okanagan Nation food, social and ceremonial fishery and an economic fishery. “Within that, about 2,500 are available for the recreational fishery at Osoyoos Lake.”
Recreational fishers will have to purchase a salmon tag in addition to their fishing licence and are limited to two fish. But there will be an additional opportunity for those who want to continue fishing after they have caught their limit.
Working in conjunction with B.C. Sportfishing, the Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre is taking the lead on a pilot project offering guided fishing trips.
Fishers on the guided tours can continue to fish, but any fish caught after the two sport fish will be considered a commercially caught fish and taken to a designated landing area and turned over to the ONA.
“Those fish are landed at a separate location and vetted through a certified cutting station in Kelowna and made available for the 100-mile diet. Wild, local sustainable fish right here in the Okanagan,” said Bussanich. “Proceeds go back towards fisheries revitalization, fish and fish habitat projects.”
They are being careful about the fisheries, said Bussanich, explaining that counts of sockeye coming upstream are being continually monitored, so the fisheries can be halted if the number of spawners doesn’t meet expectations.
Warmer water temperatures than usual this year add another danger. High water temperatures are one of the suspected causes of sudden deaths of large numbers of kokanee in Okanagan Lake, and though it is not expected, Bussanich said a temperature oxygen squeeze in Osoyoos Lake could cause problems for the sockeye.
“If temperatures rise and dissolved oxygen lowers, then you could get that oxygen squeeze. In August, when adults are there, that could be catastrophic,” said Bussanich, adding that such a situation might just delay the run. “Particularly the later part, if the water is really warm, they might just hold up at the mouth in the Columbia Reservoir.”