The Okanagan Nation Alliance (ONA) is celebrating the highest recorded sockeye salmon return in the modern era after two decades of work led by First Nations to restore fish migration routes and spawning habitat.
An estimated 670,000 sockeye have entered the Columbia River system this summer on a nearly-1,000-kilometre upstream journey toward spawning grounds in creeks and rivers, according to fish biologists with the ONA.
More than 80 per cent of those fish are destined for Canadian waters near Osoyoos, B.C., in the south Okanagan, said Richard Bussanich, the organization's head fish biologist.
"This is a great story," Bussanich said. "We've got more fish than spawning habitat coming back."
Initial projections for the annual sockeye return were less than 200,000, but Bussanich said climate and weather conditions this year, combined with the success of spawning bed restoration and fish hatchery programs led by First Nations, have resulted in the abundant return of salmon to the region.
WATCH | Okanagan Nation Alliance celebrates highest recorded salmon return
"Every once in a while you might witness something right. It's just humbling and it's overwhelming at times," he said.
The record salmon return means the ONA's economic fishery and community harvest program is thriving this year.
Through the month of August, a crew on the fishery's 12-metre purse seine boat netted an estimated 10,000 sockeye from Osoyoos Lake to be distributed among the ONA's seven Syilx communities, with another 40,000 salmon for the commercial fishery.
It's tough work under the hot, Okanagan sun, but gratifying for fishermen like Oly Clarke.
"It feels awesome helping community members get their fish. Watching [the salmon] go to the market, come back to be canned, candied and all that good stuff," said Clarke, who has been part of the ONA fishery for the past decade.
Re-introducing sockeye to the region
Clarke says his crew uses seine nets to trap schools of sockeye in the lake and pull them out of the water. It's an unusual sight on Osoyoos Lake, which is full of recreational boaters and jet-skis during the height of the summer tourist season.
Hundreds of silvery fish are then dumped into large, plastic containers in a low-sided packing boat, and taken to shore to be put on ice.
Watching the crew bring in the harvest is an emotional experience for Syilx people like Pauline Trebasket, executive director of the ONA.
"My earliest childhood memories are of accompanying my mom and dad to the Merritt area actually for kokonae (salmon) because there were no salmon here anymore," Trebasket said.
For decades Okanagan waters were closed off to migrating sockeye by a series of nine hydro-electric dams on the Columbia River system.
In partnership with Canadian and U.S. agencies, First Nations in the Okanagan have worked to restore the migration channels and re-introduce sockeye to the region over the past two decades — each year expanding spawning territory further into the valleys' creeks and rivers.
This year biologists plan to move 3,000 sockeye into Okanagan Lake to further reclaim the natural habitat of the salmon species.
"It's very fulfilling to know that I'm part of this, that I'm only a small part of something that our people have done for millennia in terms of feeding their families and having access to their foods where they live," Trebasket said.
While the abundant harvest this summer is a reason to celebrate, Trebasket acknowledged the challenges a changing climate could have on the sockeye run in years to come.
"We want our children and future generation to have clean water. Our salmon, our ntityix need cold water. They need this water," she said.
"As one of our elders always states and reminds us, in the most difficult and adversarial times this salmon restoration initiative is bigger than all of us."