'Really quite profound': Strong sockeye salmon run numbers through South Okanagan a testament to local Indigenous communities' dedication

'Profound' Sockeye return

Casey Richardson

It looks like a record-breaking sockeye salmon run this year in the South Okanagan, as Okanagan Nation Alliance crews continue to record high spawning numbers.

Crews worked down the Okanagan River in Oliver, collecting broodstock for the hatchery located on Penticton Indian Band land.

Salmon were sorted by gender and quality, then loaded into bags and floated down the river into larger tanks which would bring them up to the hatchery for fertilization.

The work began in the late 1990s, as an experimental reintroduction into Skaha Lake, since there were no Sockeye or salmon upstream of McIntyre dam.

“The run was in serious jeopardy. There were only about 3000 returning Sockeye to Osoyoos lake. And that's when the community and the elders and leadership started to raise red flags saying we need to intervene because if we don't, we're going to lose this population,” Ryan Benson, a Fisheries Biologist with the Okanagan Nation Alliance, said.

“It was just really critical to try and reestablish it. And the whole goal is to bring them back to Okanagan lake which we're currently working on and making progress at.“

The hatchery team works alongside stream restoration, rehabilitation and dam passage crews to make sure the fish have a solid habitat to return to.

“It's a conservation hatchery, meaning it's not about just pumping out fish, it's more about reestablishing runs,” Benson said.

“Here we are less than 20 years later, and we're breaking records.”

The sockeye salmon run could grow as large as a couple hundred thousand fish, but estimations won’t be complete until the end of the spawning season.

“It's really promising just for continued kickstarting the sockeye population and gives us [hope]. We're also working on the Chinook [population], since the Chinook here in the Okanagan are really, really threatened.”

Hatchery crews will continue catching salmon for the next few weeks.

“Our hatchery is designed to produce up to five to seven million eggs and it kind of looks like we might be hitting maximum capacity. It's only happened I think, once previously and we might have even more this year. We're filled up to the gills with eggs at the hatchery and it's looking like it'll be an outstanding year.”

Benson said the importance of the return to the Syilx community and the Okanagan Nation is what should stand out to the community.

“A lot of elders share stories of how they used to harvest fish back when they were little with their grandparents, and just seeing the decline and almost collapse was pretty devastating,” he added.

“It's really touching when I see elders and they're moved to tears when they see the run coming back and seeing it within their lifetime. It's really quite profound.”

The younger generations get to experience what others feared might have been lost.

“To get the young people that can actually go and harvest salmon now, which has more far-reaching outcomes than just being able to eat. It's all about culture and just the cultural relevance of having salmon back in the system.”

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