The Okanagan Nation Alliance (ONA) is celebrating the highest return of sockeye salmon recorded in the modern era after two decades of First Nations-led work to restore fish migration routes and spawning habitat.
An estimated 670,000 sockeye salmon entered the Columbia River system this summer on a nearly 1,000-mile upstream journey to spawning grounds in streams and rivers, according to ONA fish biologists.
More than 80% of those fish are destined for Canadian waters near Osoyoos, British Columbia, in the south Okanagan, said Richard Bussanich, the organization’s chief fish biologist.
“It’s a great story,” Bussanich said. “We have more fish than spawning habitat coming back.”
Initial projections for the annual return of sockeye salmon were less than 200,000, but Bussanich said this year’s climate and weather conditions, combined with the success of First Nations-led spawning and hatchery restoration programs, have resulted in an abundant return of salmon to the region. .
WATCH | Okanagan Nation Alliance Celebrates Highest Recorded Salmon Return
“Once in a while you might witness something good. It’s just humbling and it’s overwhelming at times,” he said.
The record salmon return means ONA’s economic fishing and community harvesting program is thriving this year.
During the month of August, a crew from the fishery’s 12-metre purse seine boat caught approximately 10,000 Lake Osoyoos sockeye salmon to be distributed among the seven Syilx communities in the ONA, along with another 40,000 salmon for commercial fishing.
It’s hard work in the hot Okanagan sun, but rewarding for anglers like Oly Clarke.
“It’s great to help community members get their fish. [the salmon] going to market, coming back to be canned, candied and all that good stuff,” said Clarke, who has been in the ONA fishery for a decade.
Reintroducing sockeye salmon to the region
Clarke says his crew use seines to trap schools of sockeye salmon in the lake and pull them out of the water. It’s an unusual sight of Osoyoos Lake, which is teeming with boaters and jet skis during the height of the summer tourist season.
Hundreds of silverfish are then tossed into large plastic containers in a low-sided packing boat, and taken ashore to be put on ice.
Watching the crew bring in the harvest is a moving experience for people from Syilx like ONA Executive Director Pauline Trebasket.
“My earliest childhood memories are of going with my mom and dad to the Merritt area for kokonae (salmon) because there was no more salmon here,” Trebasket said.
For decades, the waters of the Okanagan have been closed to migrating sockeye salmon by a series of nine hydroelectric dams on the Columbia River system.
In partnership with Canadian and U.S. agencies, Okanagan First Nations have worked to restore migration channels and reintroduce sockeye salmon to the region over the past two decades, each year expanding the spawning grounds further into the streams and rivers in the valleys.
This year, biologists plan to relocate 3,000 sockeye salmon to Okanagan Lake to reclaim more of the salmon species’ natural habitat.
“It is very rewarding to know that I am a part of this, that I am only a small part of something that our people have done for millennia to feed their families and have access to their food where they live” , said Trebasket. .
While this summer’s bountiful harvest is cause for celebration, Trebasket recognized the challenges that climate change could have on the sockeye salmon run in years to come.
“We want our children and the future generation to have clean water. Our salmon, our ntityix need cold water. They need this water,” she said.
“As one of our elders says and always reminds us, in the most difficult and conflicted times, this salmon restoration initiative is more important than all of us.”