Researchers in Kelowna trying to find climate-change-resilient kokanee salmon

Who has toughest kokanee?

The University of British Columbia is trying to find out where the toughest kokanee salmon in the province live.

Researchers from UBC and UBC Okanagan have teamed up with Freshwater Fisheries Society of BC, Parks Canada, and BC Ministry of Forests, Land and Natural Resource Operations, in an effort to identify the hardiest kokanee for future hatchery stocks.

"We're looking at the genetic variation in kokanee, trying to understand more about their thermal tolerance," said UBC professor Dr. Scott Hinch, explaining the study is focused on the impact climate change poses on wild populations of kokanee, a prized sportfish.

"Kokanee salmon is a species of strategic importance for supporting recreational fisheries due to its dual role as a sportfish and a key prey species to support other recreational fisheries. The recent collapse of the main wild kokanee stock used to supplement lakes around North America has amplified the need to identify robust stocks that can thrive in changing environments," he said.

The two-year study will cost more than a half million dollars and is focusing on populations in different parts of the province and beyond

"We've been using the approach to look at the five big species, and their migratory life stages, the adults, the juveniles, now we're working our way to kokanee, sort of the last frontier of salmon that has not been studied very much," Dr. Hinch said, adding that kokanee salmon is the third most stocked game fish in B.C.

Recent kokanee population crashes have led the Freshwater Fisheries Society of BC to seek out brood stocks that are more thermally tolerant and might do better in the future.

The research team is set up in Mission Creek Regional Park, trying to characterize the twenty populations of kokanee across B.C. and Yukon to find stocks tolerant to harsh environmental conditions.

"It's basically a mini laboratory that we set up. We access fish from spawning areas. And we put them through a series of different trials. Candidate populations will be further evaluated on swimming performance and cardiac fitness under extreme thermal stress to define tolerant fishes' molecular profile," said UBC Okanagan researcher Michael Russello.

He said the study aims to enhance species productivity and sustainability to help position kokanee as a "fish of the future".

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