Recreational Sockeye fishery opening on Osoyoos Lake expected at end of month
Record numbers of sockeye salmon are swimming up the Columbia River in the United States and a date is expected to be announced shortly for opening of the sports fishery on Osoyoos Lake.
If past years are an indication, a July 31 opening is likely. Last year the fishery opened on the Thursday prior to the August long weekend.
A decision on the opening date could be announced as early as this week, said officials from the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), and would be based on the numbers of fish at the Wells Dam near Chelan, WA.
The food fishery for local First Nations is already open and runs through July and August and an economic fishery is also expected to open this summer, along with local salmon sales, said Howie Wright, fisheries program manager with the Okanagan Nation Alliance (ONA).
As of Monday, more than 570,000 sockeye had passed the Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River 64 km east of Portland, OR.
About 102,000 had passed Wells Dam on the Columbia River, just below the confluence with the Okanogan River.
Wright said an estimated 600,000 sockeye will return to the Columbia River of which about 80 to 85 per cent would be bound for the Okanogan River as it is called in the United States and Okanagan River as it is called in Canada.
Numbers making it up the river diminish as they are harvested in the U.S. or die of natural causes.
Of these fish, an estimated 110,000 to 120,000 are expected to go beyond Osoyoos Lake to spawning grounds upstream, Wright said.
Increasing numbers of sockeye are reaching Skaha Lake and beyond, he added, although there are unlikely to be sufficient numbers to open a fishery there in the foreseeable feature.
“We’re hoping for about 5,000 on the spawning grounds of the Penticton channel this year,” said Wright.
Among the reasons for increasing numbers in Skaha is a new spawning program has started there and the opening of a fish ladder at Okanagan Falls, which had been a barrier to migrating fish.
This year’s migration, which could be the largest since 1938, when the Bonneville Dam opened, is largely the result of high numbers of sockeye returning to spawn in 2010, Wright said. The fish return four years later to where they were hatched to spawn.
Habitat restoration and the improvement of fish ladders have also helped to restore the migration. Ocean conditions have also had a positive impact.
Officials at DFO concurred with the estimated migration numbers, but cautioned that these are pre-season best guesses.
“It really depends on catches on the U.S. side and the amount of fish that are lost en route, but we could see escapement around that range,” said Dean Allan, DFO resource manager for the Fraser-Thompson-Okanagan area, referring to the estimate that 120,000 sockeye this year will leave Osoyoos Lake and go on to spawn.
Stu Cartwright, DFO acting area director for the B.C. interior, said a note of caution should be added to the optimistic migration forecasts.
“Environmental conditions can have a significant impact on the survival rates,” Cartwright said. “The primary concern we have right now is the high temperatures and what impact they will have on survival.”
Although some sockeye have already entered Osoyoos Lake, most wait at the pool above Wells Dam in Washington State for temperatures in the Okanogan River to cool before they continue upstream. The high temperatures in the Okanogan River are known as a thermal barrier.
When water temperatures reach about 20 degrees Celsius, the sockeye stop migrating and remain in the Columbia River, Allan said.
“Typically later in August or into September the temperatures cool down again in the river and the fish continue to migrate back into Osoyoos Lake,” he said.
Although details of the recreational sockeye fishery have not yet been announced for this year, the DFO officials said it would start with a limit of two sockeye per day as in previous years.
In addition to a fishing license, those fishing for sockeye must purchase salmon tags.
Washington State opened sockeye fishing and retention on Lake Osoyoos below the 49th parallel on Friday.
Properly licensed anglers may retain up to six sockeye measuring at least 12 inches.
This year the ONA is extending its economic pilot project to allow specially registered anglers to fish for the ONA economic harvest after they have exceeded their two-fish quota.
In previous years the program has applied to anglers with ONA guides, but this year individual anglers will be allowed to register, Wright said.