While the sockeye salmon run this year isn’t expect to be as strong as the huge return last year, it’s still expected to bring a lot of fish back to the spawning beds in the Okanagan River.
According to Howie Wright, a fisheries biologist with the Okanagan Nation Alliance, about 130,000 sockeye have passed Wells Dam, and they are expecting 70,000 to 100,000 of them to make it to the spawning beds.
And unexpectedly, some of them have even gone past the usual spawning beds, making it all the way into Skaha Lake. Wright said that sockeye and even chinook salmon have been found in the small lake this year.
Salmon haven’t been native to Skaha Lake for many years. Their reappearance, said Wright, is because water levels in rivers are good this year, with the wet weather earlier this year helping to keep water levels in the Okanagan Lake system high.
“You’ve probably noticed water running high in the channel this year,” said Wright, pointing out that flows in the Penticton channel have been as much as five times normal.
And with the gates on the control dam at Okanagan Falls raised to allow water to flow out of the lake, the salmon have been able to make it through that last hurdle.
“With the gates high out of the water, the salmon are able to jump and make it into the lake,” said Wright, adding that they have even recovered spawned out chinook carcasses from up Shingle Creek.
However, Wright said most of the sockeye will be spawning on the gravel beds in the Oliver area, as usual. Last year, a banner year for sockeye, 200,000 made the return journey to spawn. That’s especially significant, Wright said, considering the amount that spawned there in the brood year.
Sockeye live on a four-year lifecycle, hatching in fresh water before making their way to the ocean, where they spend the majority of their life. Then, at the end of their lifecycle, they return to the area they were born to spawn. That means, Wright said, that last year’s returning fish were spawned in 2006, when only 20,000 fish returned to spawn.
“It was a good survival for that brood year,” said Wright, remarking on the approximate 10-to-one return. That’s about the same ratio they are seeing this year, he continued; this year’s fish are returning from 2007, when about 13,500 sockeye spawned.
While these numbers are encouraging, Wright is hopeful those same high survival rates will continue. Next year’s run, he said, will be based on the 2008 brood year, when 108,000 sockeye spawned.
“In 2012 it could be a very good year,” he said.
A similar 10-to-one survival rate could mean as many as a million sockeye making their way home to spawn in the Okanagan.