By Richard McGuire
With sockeye salmon numbers down dramatically, there will not be a recreational or commercial sockeye fishery on Osoyoos Lake this year.
So far, barely 41,000 sockeye have been recorded at Wells Dam at the confluence of the Columbia and Okanogan rivers in Washington State – the last major dam before the fish make their ascent to Osoyoos Lake.
The problem, says Richard Bussanich, fisheries biologist with the Okanagan Nation Alliance (ONA), is that this year’s run is almost 98 per cent completed and not many more sockeye are expected.
Numbers of fish counted at the Wells Dam are used to determine decision rules on whether to allow a fishery, said Bussanich, and the minimum required is around 80,000.
Dean Allan, a senior official with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) based in Kamloops, says that in addition to the need for an escapement of 80,000 over the Wells Dam, DFO also looks at data for fish entering Osoyoos Lake recorded in conjunction with the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation.
“We also look at how many fish are actually making it into the lake before we make a decision to open those fisheries,” said Allan, acting area chief of resource management for the Fraser and Interior Area.
This year’s low numbers contrast with the banner year of 2014, when about 490,000 sockeye passed the Wells Dam.
This year is well below the 10-year average of about 200,000 sockeye, Bussanich added.
“We have been messaging out to community members that it is a low run and if there is any food or social or ceremonial fishing going on, be aware of that,” said Bussanich. “There’s not a lot of fish in the river. It’s a slim pickings year.”
Food, social and ceremonial fisheries will be very limited this year and there will be no commercial or recreational fisheries, he added.
“It’s fish first,” he said, underlining the importance of ensuring the long-term survival of the sockeye fishery.
He points out that the problem is by no means unique to the Okanagan and Columbia systems. Nor is it limited to sockeye, with Chinook also experiencing a downturn.
“There’s quite a large marine effect happening on the salmon stocks right now,” he said, suggesting the impact of ocean temperature and currents.
“People have been anticipating El Niño kicking in and it’s real,” he said. “What we’re seeing is a signal of poor marine survival.”
While 2014 was a banner year, the following year was disastrous due to high mortality rates in the Columbia River caused by hot and dry weather conditions.
But this year’s numbers recorded at the Bonneville Dam near Portland, Oregon, suggest far fewer fish are entering the Columbia River in the first place. As of Sunday, only slightly more than 87,000 sockeye were recorded there so far this year.
Bussanich said numbers are also down substantially on the Fraser, Skeena and Nass rivers, as well as rivers on the west coast of Vancouver Island.
Bussanich said the fish returning this year were predominantly born in 2013 and 2014, so the disastrous 2015 die-off didn’t impact this year’s low numbers.
Despite this year’s poor numbers, Bussanich is optimistic about the longer term, in part because of the success of the ONA over the past decade in restoring the sockeye fishery.
The ONA has been committed to sockeye recovery through a hatchery program, habitat restoration, science and fish monitoring.
“I’m optimistic, based on what we’ve seen in the last 10 years,” said Bussanich. “We’re learning a lot, that this stock, if given a chance, does rebound remarkably. If we give it a chance and continue helping it, it will rebound again.”