Steeves/Trail Mix: Life’s a fight and then you die

It's not an easy life for the kokanee salmon in the Okanagan, but it's in our hands to make it less difficult if we have the will.

A spawning kokanee salmon fights his way upstream to spawn before dying.

Humans no longer have any concept of what it’s like to focus their entire life, all their efforts, on survival of their species.

That’s clear as I watch the bright red kokanee salmon fighting against the current and all other obstacles to swim upstream to their birthplace to spawn at this time of year.

I couldn’t imagine being in their position: facing a barrier of huge rocks in my path, complicated by swiftly flowing water, which I must swim against and somehow jump over to continue on my quest to reproduce.

Even when they successfully flip themselves over the barrier and into the still pond above, some are immediately washed back downstream by the swift streamflow and have to negotiate the hurdle all over again.

By the way they pause, swishing their tails to keep their bodies facing into the current, before attempting to move into the swirling water at the bottom of a waterfall, I have to assume they’re beginning to tire after travelling many kilometres upstream in Mission Creek from Okanagan Lake.

As I stand up from my crouch beside the creek, they fan away in fright, so obviously they realize the danger that lurks above in the sky from osprey, owls, hawks and other fish-eating birds.

The immense change in physical characteristics, from a silver fish to one that’s scarlet with a green head sporting the classic upturned nose of the spawning salmon, is quite amazing.

They use water temperature and day length to trigger their decision about when to enter the creek from the lake where they made their home for the past four years.

During that time, it’s been learned they also face innumerable problems, from a lack of adequate feed because the introduced mysis shrimp out-compete them for it when they first arrive, to low nutrient levels in Okanagan Lake, predation by rainbow trout and issues scientists are only just learning about.

If they do survive in the lake to return to spawn, it’s the culmination of their lives, as salmon die after spawning, their bodies providing nutrients for surrounding habitat and feed for bears, raccoons and other critters. It’s a final journey, their odyssey home to lay their eggs.

A variety of highly-qualified scientists spent time between 1996 and 2006 exploring the issues that caused a crash in the population of kokanee in the Okanagan in the 1970s through to the 2000s, but what was a 20-year plan for their recovery was cut short at that point; the budget slashed and the little fish left to continue eking out an existence in habitat that continues to be eroded by human activity.

To be fair, efforts have been made to improve some of the issues affecting their continued survival, but much more can be done, largely involving restoration of habitat, such as a re-naturalizing of creeks like Mission, Trout and Penticton, as well as Trepanier and others.

Every time a new dock is plunked down along the shore of Okanagan Lake, more habitat is lost though, and no one seems to be saying no to those who want to build those docks.

Perhaps one species of little fish are not considered important enough to prevent more people from building docks over their gravel beds for spawning; or from permitting pollutants of one sort or another from entering a lake or stream; or from releasing land so the creek can once again flow over it, providing habitat.

If that’s the case, be prepared to also wave good-bye to big, fat, trophy rainbows and the tourism industry that’s based on recreational fishing; and to more changes in that aquatic ecosystem than we can even guess at, but which will affect us negatively one day.

The alternative is to stand our ground; to voice our objections when their habitat is endangered; to get out on the ground and help restore habitat throughout the watershed.

Where are you prepared to draw the line?

Judie Steeves writes about outdoors issues for the Capital News.



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