There are between 250,000 and 300,000 sockeye salmon in Osoyoos Lake right now and by the end of fishing season in September, some 50,000 of them will have been caught by commercial, recreational and native food fishers.
In the largest return since records began in 1938, over 600,000 of the prized food fish have moved from the Pacific Ocean into the Columbia River system to begin their spawning cycle.
According to Howie Wright, fisheries program manager for the Okanagan Nations Alliance (ONA), as many as 300,000 are waiting in the deep pools of Osoyoos Lake, waiting to head up the Okanagan River.
Such is the size of the bounty that the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) recently raised the daily catch limit for recreational fishers from three to four. As well, DFO extended the recreational season to September 2.
For the town of Osoyoos, “It is definitely having an impact on economic development,” said Destination Osoyoos managing director Gail Scott.
“I drive every day from Oliver and the number of (fishing) boats on the lake is amazing,” she said.
Recreational fisherman Ron Peterson, interviewed as he pulled his boat out of the water after a moderately successful morning of fishing, said he drives down from Naramata four or five days a week to fish for sockeye.
ONA’s Wright estimated that the total recreational catch will likely end up at between 5,000 and 8,000.
Wright, who spent much of Tuesday on the lake trolling for fish, said the first nations commercial fishery is an economic boon for area bands. “There are about 15 people working in the fishery,” he said.
The commercial fishery employs one and sometimes two seiners, which net fish in the deep holes where they hang out before heading up-river. Since the season began on July 31, the seiners have hauled in about 20,000 fish, said Wright.
There is also a native food fishery, which supplies fish to first nations in the Okanagan and Similkameen Valleys. About 8,000 fish have been taken, with gill nets and trolling, for food.
By season’s end, Wright estimated, between 40,000 and 50,000 sockeye will have been harvested in the commercial, food and recreational fisheries.
Once the fish leave the lake, they will head north up the Okanagan River. The bulk of them will spawn in the river just north of Oliver.
Thanks to recent developments of fish passages over the dams on the Okanagan River, as many as 15,000 will find their way into Skaha Lake. From there most will head up into the Penticton Channel, where efforts by the ONA have been going on since 2003 to enhance the spawning environment.