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Recreational sockeye salmon fishery closes due to migration concerns
This year’s recreational sockeye salmon fishing season was closed Monday because of concerns about low numbers of salmon entering Osoyoos Lake.
The announcement comes one year after the sockeye salmon run into Osoyoos Lake was one of the best in recent recorded history.
Fisheries officials say that warm river temperatures have halted the migration for many fish, which are remaining in the pool above the Wells Dam on the Columbia River.
A “thermal barrier” has meant that about half the fish that have passed the dam are not swimming up the Okanogan River in Washington State.
Les Jantz, area director for B.C. Interior with the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), said about 120,000 sockeye have passed the Wells Dam, which is located on the Columbia River just below the confluence with the Okanogan River.
From what DFO can determine, however, only about 40,000 to 50,000 fish have actually made it to Osoyoos Lake to date, Jantz said.
It is uncertain, he said, how many fish are waiting in the pool above Wells Dam for the temperature in the Okanogan River to become cooler so they can finish the migration.
In other years when this situation has occurred there has been a high mortality of fish, with many not making it up to spawn, he added.
“We’re a little worried about fishing too hard right now, which is part of the rationale for the closure of the fishery,” said Jantz. “We’ll be evaluating things as time goes on to make some decisions as to whether we will allow for some additional harvesting in the future or not.”
Cautioning that he doesn’t have final numbers, Jantz said DFO estimates that about 1,500 sockeye have been caught in the sports fishery since it opened Aug. 1.
The Okanagan Nation Alliance has also been doing some food fishing since the salmon came upstream, and DFO estimates that they have caught between 3,000 and 5,000 sockeye.
While the fishery could reopen if temperatures cool, Jantz said this is unlikely.
“What tends to happen at this point in the year is that the quality of the fish really begins to deteriorate,” said Jantz. “These fish have been in fresh water for a month now and their body is developing and putting more energy into developing eggs and sperm so the flesh quality really begins to deteriorate.”
The salmon will not normally swim up the Okanogan River when temperatures reach or exceed 22 degrees Celsius and so they hold in the Columbia River until temperatures cool down, Jantz said.
Sometimes they get fooled and start up the river when temperatures cool. When water then warms again, many fish die due to disease, lower oxygen levels and other problems, Jantz said.
The situation with the thermal barrier was not anticipated in mid to late July when the decision was made to open the sports fishery, he noted.
“Now that we’re into it and we are observing these kinds of temperatures, in order to meet our escapement objectives and make sure there’s enough fish for food, social and ceremonial needs [of First Nations], we’re going to slow things down right now,” Jantz said.
“Escapement” refers to the number of fish leaving the fishery in Osoyoos Lake to spawn upstream.
If this year’s sports salmon fishery was a disappointment on Osoyoos Lake, it’s been worse elsewhere in the province.
Conditions this year weren’t sufficient to establish a recreational sockeye fishery on the Fraser River, however, some recreational sockeye fishing was permitted at Barkley Sound on Vancouver Island. In northern B.C. there was some commercial sockeye fishing, Jantz added.
On Osoyoos Lake, the Okanagan Nation Alliance has conducted some small-scale rod and reel commercial fishing and this will continue for a short time, Jantz said.
“Their catch rate has been very low,” said Jantz. “I think in the order of 200 or 300 fish. They’re well under the number of fish that they were targeting to catch.”
After a decade in which the sockeye salmon run into Osoyoos Lake was virtually non-existent, there was a massive rebound last summer as hundreds of thousands of sockeye salmon made the run from the Columbia River into Osoyoos Lake and throughout the South Okanagan water system.
Stocks were so plentiful that the Osoyoos Indian Band organized a daily fish market outside the Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre last July and August.