Schell: Work underway to restore sockeye salmon to Okanagan

The plan for the Okanagan is to restore habitat so sockeye salmon can re-establish their run into the valley lakes. - Contributed
The plan for the Okanagan is to restore habitat so sockeye salmon can re-establish their run into the valley lakes.
— image credit: Contributed

Did you know that once upon a time we had sockeye salmon living in Okanagan Lake?

With the annual salmon run en route to Osoyoos (they would be half way up the Columbia River now), I sat down with Jon Crofts from Codfathers Seafood Market in Kelowna for a history lesson on this delicious fish and the conservation efforts being made to return its natural habitat.

So what happened to the native salmon species in Okanagan Lake?  About 100 years ago man began tampering with the river channels, straightening them from their natural, winding routes between the lakes (ie. Penticton Channel). Dams were also built in the south, which set up obvious barriers for the salmon.

Unfortunately, the sockeye slowly became blocked from returning home and eventually, the “genetically distinct run that returns to the Okanagan” began ending its journey in Osoyoos Lake.

The number of salmon returning a decade ago were down to a few thousand for a few reasons including the fact that Osoyoos Lake is too small and too warm for the smolts (baby salmon) to survive.

This staggering drop had conservationists fearing for its extinction. However, he recovery has been gradual over the last few years with numbers last year over 100,000.

Now for the good news.

Through the conservation work of the Okanagan Nations Alliance (ONA) 500,000 salmon are expected to return this year.

The Okanagan Sockeye Reintroduction Program was set up in 1997 under the direction of elders and began work to bring the sockeye salmon back into Okanagan Lake.

The ONA has been working on restoring the river channels to their natural state and reopening the path for the salmon.  Their mission is to continue this work allowing the salmon population back into Skaha Lake and then hopefully into Okanagan Lake.

Can you imagine? One day we may be able to fish for sockeye salmon here.

Jon and Anne-Marie Crofts have become involved with this conservation work and have signed an agreement with the ONA allowing Jon to process and distribute the salmon in the valley. They are working on setting up a direct sales site in Osoyoos and Jon has trained a new staff of fishmongers to work there.

They will also be building a special processing room at the back of Codfathers current shop on Gordon Drive in Kelowna to exclusively handle these local fish.

Jon is thrilled to be a part of this exciting project. “This is a really good thing for the Valley,” he said. “It’s not very often that you get to see such a dramatic effect following conservation efforts.”

Jon wants “to make sure that the fish are respected, taken care of and managed locally,” and comments that this initiative will also “secure local this food source for the Valley for years to come”.

Interesting fact:  Did you know that the kokanee found in Okanagan Lake are genetically the same species as the sockeye salmon?

Once upon a time, perhaps blocked by ice, some of the salmon became landlocked in Okanagan Lake and could not leave for the run.  These fish then evolved into kokanee.

How can you get involved?

The Pacific Salmon Foundation and Okanagan Nation Alliance have joined forces to host a gala dinner and auction to raise funds for Pacific salmon conservation, restoration and enhancement in the Okanagan region. The gala dinner and auction will be held on Thursday, Aug. 2 at the Delta Grand Okanagan Hotel in Kelowna. The theme for the dinner is Many Happy Returns and will celebrate the historical return of sockeye salmon to the Okanagan region.

All net proceeds raised at this event will be directed towards Pacific salmon conservation, restoration and enhancement in the Okanagan.

Tickets are $100 per person, available through the Okanagan Nation Alliance office.

For more information, to purchase tickets, or to offer a donation or sponsorship, please contact Tracey Bussanich at 250-707-0095 ext. 130 or 250-470-7048.  Tracey can be reached by email at

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