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The kokanee crisis

This fall’s spawning numbers were so low, some scientists are quietly wondering if it’s already too late to save the lake’s population

by Judie Steeves
Staff Writer, Capital News
Sunday, November 23, 1997

With a splash and thunk, the big rock hit the water and landed on the gravel bed of the creek, pinning a frantic fish. The young boy let out a whoop of victory from his perch on the footbridge over Mission Creek.

His companions were upstream, cavorting in the water, with a puppy amongst them excited by the flipping fins of the red-flushed fish making their way slowly upstream to lay their eggs before dying.

Although at first glance it may appear to be a Norman Rockwell-type picture of kids having fun with their pets, closer inspection reveals that a species is being helped toward extinction.

Kokanee numbers released this week show a native species of fish rapidly becoming extinct in Okanagan Lake: half last year’s numbers of stream-spawning kokanee made their way back to the creek of their birth this fall to repeat the cycle of life.

In all, 35,000 of the little land-locked salmon returned to spawn in streams from Okanagan Lake. In 1992, 157,000 made it.

There are many reasons for the recent dramatic decline in their population, and many more aren’t yet known.

It’s certainly not all the fault of little boys.

But, when all the details are stripped away, humans are the most likely culprits says Okanagan University College biologist Dr. Peter Dill, who has been studying the valley’s kokanee for many years.

While he observes the habits of kokanee with the goal of discovering what may be the cause of their decline, Dill says they are in serious trouble if this years numbers are correct.

However, he admits quite frankly, “It may be too late for this population, but we may be able to apply what we discover to others.”

He notes that sockeye salmon are adapters all over the world, so for them to have suffered here like this is unrealistic.

For this reason, he points to the interference of people in their habitat as the villains in the piece.

Senior fisheries biologist Bruce Shepherd with the environment ministry’s district office in Penticton agrees.

He tells stories of people sicking their dogs on spawning kokanee as they fight their way upstream from the lake to lay their eggs, as well as youngsters being encouraged to practice their proficiency with a slingshot on the colourful spawning fish.

One Penticton resident actually brought footage into the environment ministry office showing a man stabbing the helpless fish with a hunting knife, but he was frightened to leave the tape for evidence because it was obvious from which home it was filmed.

Wherever the pathways follow spawning streams or roadways provide access, people find them who (with their pets) will harass the little fish as they battle their way upstream to continue their species.

Then there are the earthmovers who wish to move the stream or muck about in it for one reason or another, and in the process, destroy essential gravel spawning beds and stir up silt which suffocates kokanee eggs as it resettles.

It is illegal to do any of these things without a permit from the environment ministry, and usually the only window when productive streams are not being used by trout spawning in the spring or kokanee in the fall, is in late August.

Rapid population growth has led to unprecedented development in the Okanagan, along with the inevitable destruction of natural habitat for all wildlife and fish in recent years.

Human settlement in this valley is also responsible for this year’s damage from high water, although the weather played a part too.

In controlling the lake’s outflow, water management branch staff walked a tightrope this year between trying to protect lakeshore properties from flooding, while not releasing so much water from the system that the valley was short of water in the dry months; and the needs of shore spawning kokanee.

The kokanee lost.

Record snowpack in the hills surrounding the valley this spring meant officials had to prepare the lake to receive the extra water, and that drawdown caused many shore spawned fry to be beached, high and dry, when they emerged.

The problem still exists, with Okanagan Lake at a higher than usual level due to continued inflow from precipitation throughout the year, and this fall’s shore spawners will likely have laid their eggs higher up.

Dill is hopeful that a warm winter will lead to early emergence next spring, before the lake is drawn down significantly, so those fry will have a better chance of survival.

But again, it will be the little fish against human needs.

Ian McGregor, Kamloops/Okanagan fisheries section head for the environment ministry, doesn’t feel efforts to restore the stocks of kokanee in Okanagan Lake is one of the areas that has suffered from staff and budget cutbacks in the ministry.

Compared to other fisheries needs throughout the province, he feels it has fared well.

“Okanagan Lake is still one of the highest priorities,” he says.

He does concede that not everything can be done as hoped because of cuts, but he notes most of the research and monitoring is paid for with money from the Habitat Conservation Fund, so hasn’t suffered from budget cuts.

Extinction is a long way off, he feels.

One of the recommendations of a 110-page report released following a scientists’ think tank workshop in Kelowna in June, 1995 was that public involvement in efforts to rebuild stocks is vital.

The beginning of that involvement comes this fall when public meetings will be held throughout the valley, and residents asked to commit some of the time and money not available from the ministry to undertake the daunting task.

One of the messages at those meetings will be that not only the police can police the resource. Everyone can — and must.