Canada’s top recreational kokanee fishery got a boost this year from its community.
In a massive effort that involved its friends, neighbours, anglers, the province and the Okanagan Nation Alliance, all the kokanee from Wood Lake that spawned this fall in Middle Vernon Creek were counted individually.
It was a labour of love for many of the volunteers.
The project began as one of a series directed at resolving some of the issues with kokanee populations in this part of the valley, led by stock assessment biologist Paul Askey with the Forest, Land and Natural Resource Operations ministry, with five years of funding from the Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation.
At first, efforts were directed at research into genetically differentiating between the kokanee who spawn along shorelines, and those that enter the streams of their birth, to spawn.
Making use of the genetic markers discovered in that research continues as part of the funding, but this year, field work involved a count of almost all the stream spawning kokanee from Wood Lake.
To properly manage a fishery, it’s important to measure it, notes Askey.
The province contracted with the ONA to conduct an actual count of each fish entering the main fish spawning creek for Wood Lake, Middle Vernon Creek.
With the help of a lot of volunteers, many from the local Oceola Fish and Game Club, the mouth of the creek was blocked off to fish passage with a large trap into which the fish could swim, but not get out.
Instead, each was enumerated and details recorded, such as how ripe each fish was and how ready to spawn, before it was carefully released upstream of the trap, explained fisheries biologist James Pepper of the ONA.
Most of the fish movement was at night, so it meant a team was on deck from about 7:30 p.m. each night until 2 a.m. the next morning, while occasional checks were done during the day to count and release the few fish who entered the stream then.
“There would be surges of 300 fish at a particular time, with two or three pulses until 2 a.m.,” said Pepper.
“It was a very labour-intensive effort,” he added.
The results were surprising.
Although this was one of the lowest spawning runs on record, the number counted annually by the conventional method of walking the stream, counting, then expanding that by 1.5 times, appears to have been an under-estimate of numbers.
This year, that method came up with a figure of 3,500 kokanee, low compared to last year’s estimate of 15,000 fish; but far below the 7,862 actually counted in the trap this year, so it’s believed a multiplier of double what’s been used in the past would be more accurate.
That’s one assumption that will need to be checked with data from more years of doing the fence count, warn both Askey and Pepper.
So, Pepper says the ONA has applied to the HCTF for funding to continue this work again next year.
He says they’ve also applied to the Environment Canada Eco-Action fund for money to continue the work with a study of egg-to-fry survival. It’s also important to investigate why Middle Vernon Creek frequently runs dry just before the kokanee enter to spawn in the fall.
“It’s exciting to work with the whole community on something like this,” commented Pepper.
Such counts are essential in order to determine what harvest targets can be set, so what the fishing regulations should be to manage this fishery sustainably.
“It may take some time but we’ll get the solution to this problem,” commented Askey.
“It’s a pretty special lake,” he added.