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Requiem for the kokanee

by Ron Symour
The Daily Courier
Wednesday, May 1, 1996

KELOWNA — A legal ban on kokanee fishing may be unnecessary in a few years — because there wouldn’t be any of them left to catch anyway.

Conservation efforts intended to halt the decline of the landlocked salmon aren’t yielding much result, biologists say.

The number of kokanee in Okanagan Lake has dropped to a record low according to this fall’s count, and the future is bleak unless the government provides more money to enhance spawning grounds.

“Basically, there’s no light at the end of the tunnel,” Bruce Shepherd, acting fisheries section head for the Ministry of Environment, said Tuesday.

This fall’s kokanee run might be as low as 50,000 — just half the number that were counted last year. The figures are preliminary, however, since the season for shore-spawning kokanee is not over.

“We’ll have to wait a while before we know the total numbers,” Okanagan University College biologist Peter Dill said. As recently as the mid-197Os, there were more than a million kokanee spawning in the Okanagan, most of those in Mission Creek.

One possible — though unlikely — way to boost kokanee stocks would be for the government to spend several times the approximately $300,000 now budgeted annually for spawning enhancement projects. Such work, funded by fees collected from fishing licences, typically involves building fish ladders and spawning platforms in the 15 Okanagan creeks considered suitable for kokanee spawning.

“If we could do that sort of work virtually simultaneously, which is a tough order because of budget constraints, we could certainly see the picture turning around,” Shepherd said.

Another possible strategy would be to increase the number of rainbow trout that anglers can take from the lake each season. “Each rainbow chews its way through about 250 kokanee every year,” Shepherd said.

The chief reason for the decline in kokanee stocks was the ill-fated introduction to the lake several decades ago of mysis shrimp. The shrimp were supposed to provide food for the kokanee, but instead wound up eating much of the plankton that young kokanee rely on.

In the next few months, the Ministry of Environment will prepare a funding submission for an innovative approach to reduce the number of mysis shrimp in the lake. By installing aerators at certain spots on the lake bottom, scientists think they may be able to drive the mysis shrimp up to warmer levels where they can’t survive.

“Our best chance for offsetting the decline (in kokanee stocks) is through this kind of multipronged approach,” Shepherd said.

But one critic of the Ministry’s management of fish stocks doubts that measures under consideration will bolster the number of kokanee. Frank Shannon of Summerland, who has written about fishery issues for years, believes the mysis shrimp are in the lake to stay.

They’re so numerous that I don’t think there’s anything that can be done about them,” says Shannon.

“The number of kokanee is eventually going to get so low that it’ll be a point of no return. Maybe we’ve reached that point now.”