For the first time in half a century, spawning sockeye salmon will return to Okanagan Lake.
Last week the Okanagan Nation Alliance (ONA) and Fisheries and Oceans Canada restored a fish ladder that had been inoperable for 50 years after the Penticton dam was built.
Historically sockeye salmon were native to the Okanagan Lake but disappeared due to European intervention.
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Construction of dams, channelization, water management practices and other development have all contributed to the depletion and near extinction of fish stocks within the Okanagan River basin.
“In the entire Columbian system, the Okanagan River is the only river left that spawns sockeye and that’s monumental when you think about it,” said Lee McFayden, member of the Okanagan River Restoration Initiative and the Okanagan Similkameen Conservation Alliance (OSCA).
“This river is prime for keeping sockeye alive in the Columbia system. If we lose them it’s devastating. The fish have an inherent right to space and apart from that they are very important to First Nations culture.”
McFayden added that many species such as bears and eagles eat sockeye as a primary food source and that losing the sockeye would affect the health of other wildlife.
In an effort to help the sockeye migrate, First Nations and conservation groups have also built spawning beds along the Okanagan River using the right gravel to mimic spawning grounds.
Small stocks have also been released into creeks that filter into Okanagan River and water flows have been adjusted at downstream dams to allow sockeye safe passage.
McFayden said upwards of 30,000 sockeyes will find their way into the Okanagan Lake, which is considered a low return, but she is optimistic next season will have more.