The survival rate of Kokanee salmon in Kootenay Lake is continuing to dwindle, according to the province, but several groups in the Kootenays region of British Columbia are working together to change that.
It's a problem that's been ongoing for years, according to the Freshwater Fisheries Society of B.C., which says anywhere from 500,000 to one million spawners were once expected to return to streams to deposit their eggs each year.
Over the last eight years, the averages of spawning Kokanee — a subspecies of sockeye salmon that live in freshwater — have been more like 35,000, the society says.
There are a number of reasons that survival rates are down, says Chad Fritz, manager of the Kootenay Trout Hatchery, with predation one of the main factors.
"Predator numbers got really high, caused high predation on the young Kokanee, and really tipped the balance out of whack," he said.
The main predators of the fish are rainbow and bull trout, both of which are plentiful in Kootenay Lake and its watershed.
A team of biologists are now collecting eggs from spawning Kokanee in several other locations across the region, including Fairmont in the Columbia Valley, Hill Creek near Nakusp, and Tye Lake.
A wire fence on the Columbia River near Fairmont, B.C., part of the system used to catch Kokanee salmon as they migrate upstream so their eggs can be collected. (Corey Bullock/CBC News)
Crews collect spawning salmon, sort them into male and female, retrieve their eggs and fertilize them. The eggs are then sent to the Kootenay Trout Hatchery, which is run by the Freshwater Fisheries Society, to incubate before they are released.
This work is being carried out by the Creston Valley Rod & Gun Club in partnership with the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, and has been possible thanks in part to a $399,000 grant from the province's Destination Development Fund.
The Lower Kootenay Band has also given its support.
"Having the Rod & Gun Club, government and Indigenous [leaders] combine together, supported by many other organizations ... this little fish is bringing unity," said band council member Robin Louie.
Vital to ecosystem
While the non-profit Freshwater Fisheries Society has spawning programs across the province, this project is unique in that the Rod & Gun Club applied for the grant.
"[The funds will] be used for collecting, incubating and stocking eggs into Kootenay Lake," said Cathy Fielder, the club's fisheries director.
"We also are going to be putting signage up depicting the cultural and historical values of the Kokanee to the Lower Kootenay Band [and] the Ktunaxa [Nation]."
Some of the hundreds of thousands of Kokanee eggs collected at Fairmont for the Kootenay Lake restocking program. (Corey Bullock/CBC News)
Kokanee are important to a healthy ecosystem, Fielder said.
"If they aren't doing well then the predator fish and the rest of the ecosystem won't be doing well," she said.
"We have bears, we have eagles — a lot of wildlife depend on the Kokanee."
Louie agrees, saying the fish give "a tell-tale sign of how the land actually is."
"Without the Kokanee, we can't teach our children about the synergy of the land — because it's the leader of the water, just like the eagle is the leader of the sky and the grizzly bear is the leader of the land."
David Ek and Sapph Cooper from the Freshwater Fisheries Society of B.C. sort Kokanee on the Columbia River near Fairmont, B.C., on Tuesday. (Corey Bullock/CBC News)
Shared goal of healthy fishery
While Kokanee numbers are low in Kootenay Lake, they are abundant in other areas like the Columbia River near Fairmont, where the groups are set up collecting eggs this week.
Fritz says there are protocols in place to ensure a certain number of fish can continue upstream and spawn naturally at the collection sites.
"A lot of thought has been put into making sure that we're only taking fish that would be extra to the system itself," he said.
He says they focus on catching Kokanee that are genetically similar to those found in Kootenay Lake.
Fritz says in the past, the province has done genetic testing to determine which locations have fish with the most similar genetics to the Meadow Creek strain of Kokanee. Meadow Creek, a spawning channel built by the province's fisheries branch in 1967, is located at the north end of Kootenay Lake.
"[We want to] maintain any sort of evolutionary traits that become important overtime. All these things may be very subtle, but they could be important over long-term survival," Fritz said.
There are also strategies in place to reduce predator numbers, like the Kootenay Lake Angler Incentive Program, which encourages anglers to catch and retain rainbow and bull trout in Kootenay Lake.
The aim is for juvenile Kokanee to avoid predation and grow to a reproductive age of three to five years old, allowing the Kokanee sport fishery to reopen.