More than 100 people gathered on the shores of Slocan Lake May 16 to witness the release of over 10,000 sockeye salmon fry. Students from the village of Slocan and South Slocan were on scene to watch the release of the fish that they had raised from hatchlings in their classrooms.
It’s part of the Fish in Schools program, an ongoing project by the Okanagan Nation Alliance to support the reintroduction of salmon to the Columbia River system. Students in nine West Kootenay schools each raised 100 hatchlings during the school year for release.
“Today, they’re going to celebrate all the hard work they did hatching the eggs, raising the fry, taking care of them, cleaning the tanks, and making sure they are happy and healthy,” says ONA Fish Biologist Michael Zimmer. “… It’s exciting for everybody. The chiefs and the elders, they have been without salmon for 80 years. The important part is they are here to witness, to maintain that connection… we want to make sure we keep that alive, that there are people that remember the salmon and know the salmon are here again.”
The fish will stay in Slocan Lake for a year, then follow their ancient path to the ocean down the Slocan, Kootenay, and finally the Columbia River. They’ll spend most of their lives in salt water, until instinct drives them to return to their starting point. At this point, they can’t make it back, however, as dams on the Columbia block access to waters upstream.
Still, it was a moment of healing, remembrance, and hope, as the fish fry were sent on their way with traditional songs and drumming.
“This is amazing. This is what I live for,” said Lower Similkameen Chief Keith Crow, who attended the event. “They might be little steps, but every little step gets us closer. And I hope we are going to get to the point where my grandkids and great-grandkids are going to be able to fish salmon on their own.”
Fish were released in Castlegar, Revelstoke, and several locations in the Okanagan last month as well.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of Fish in Schools, a comprehensive fish education program for elementary to secondary students, with a focus on sc’win (sockeye salmon), their life cycle and the importance of their ecosystems. The intent is to encourage students to become future leaders, land protectors, water managers, scientists and the multitude of environmental and social sciences professions that are available for them.