Sockeye to reach Okanagan Lake after over 50 years

Sockeye to finally reach lake

Chelsea Powrie

For the first time in over 50 years, sockeye salmon returning from the ocean through the South Okanagan will have a path through the Penticton dam to Okanagan lake. 

A long-dormant fish passage that was previously installed but boarded up on the western edge of the dam is being opened up and fitted with a fish ladder to help the sockeye get through, with work beginning this week. 

"When the dam was built, this fish way has always been here, but the fish never made it this far, they only made it to McIntyre dam in Oliver," said Herb Alex, Okanagan Nation Alliance hatchery equipment and facilities maintenance coordinator explained Friday at the dam.

The narrow concrete passage at the side of the dam is being fitted with a fish ladder, wooden boards placed approximately every foot to allow the salmon to bypass the major jets of water coming south from the dam's gates. 

"They have to have a little bit of a pool so they have enough jump," Alex said.

The fish will tackle nine feet of elevation from the Penticton Channel to Okanagan Lake one small jump at a time, maximizing their chances of making it. 

It's the latest step in a restoration process of the salmon run that has spanned from the border to Penticton, renovating dams and waterways over more than a decade. 

For Ryan Benson, manager of of the Skaha sockeye rehabilitation project, it's an amazing moment to anticipate sockeye finally returning to Okanagan Lake after so many decades. 

"Last Saturday, just in the bays milling around, there were sockeye," Benson said. "So I'm fairly confident they are just itching to get up into the lake."

Sockeye run in four-year cycles, with babies born in the area heading south through a 6,000 kilometre round-trip journey down the Columbia River to the ocean and back. That differs from the existing kokanee salmon stock in Okanagan Lake, which never leave freshwater.

This year, like across the west coast, return number may be a little low. 

"This is the returning year from 2015, that's when they had massive fish kills down in the Columbia, pretty much almost a population crash," Benson said. "So we're expecting probably about 30,000 [in the Okanagan], which is slightly lower than last year."

The new fish ladder will be operational within a few days and will serve as a test this year, with limits on the number of sockeye allowed through. 

"Because this is an experiment this year, we're capping it at 100," Benson explained. "We'll put some tags in and let them over the dam and see where they end up."

2020 is expected to be a robust year for sockeye return, so the hope is that this year will allow the ONA to tweak any issues and prepare for a massive influx of fish next fall. 

The fish ladder will not affect the management of the dam's water flow. 

"The flows that go through the ladder are fairly negligible compared to what is going through the gates, so it's not a problem to make whatever little tweaks or changes we need," dam manager Shaun Reimer said. 

Join the official welcome of the sockeye back to Penticton on Oct. 20 at the dam from 1 to 3 p.m., hosted by the Okanagan Similkameen Conservation Alliance. All are welcome and attendance is free. 

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