As sockeye fry were released Thursday from the hands of locals, words of good luck and prayers followed the fish into the Okanagan River.
“It’s just to make sure they come back,” Herb Alex, the Okanagan Nation Alliance’s hatchery equipment and facilities maintenance facilitator, said with a smile as helped pass out the fry in small cups for children and locals to set free.
Over 400 students joined Alex for the release ceremony.
It’s a part of the ONA’s conservation efforts to restore the sockeye population throughout the Okanagan. Approximately 4.2 million fish were released this year as a part of the annual program.
“This year we were able to meet some of our long-term objectives of releases into Okanagan Lake, and move towards restoration and diversity of the sockeye population,” said Howie Wright, fisheries manager for the ONA.
Thursday saw 52,000 fry released into the river just off Green Mountain Road.
Wright said that in the 1990s, the number of returning fish was in the range of 2000; now it runs from 50,000 to 100,000.
And although restoration efforts have improved numbers, Penticton Indian Band Chief Chad Eneas said there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done to rebuild the sockeye salmon population.
“There’s a significant loss of the natural balance because the salmon were here for so long,” said Eneas, explaining that historically, six to eight million salmon would return annually.
The most he’s ever seen return in one year was around 640,000.
“There’s still a lot to do,” he said. “The salmon that come back here not only provide sustenance and food for us, but it provides for nutrients for the land, and things like the grizzly bear,” he said.
Pauline Terbasket, executive director of the ONA, said the event gets bigger every year.
“It takes a whole team to organize this event that started very small,” she said. “We’ve got schools that now grow the fry and it’s part of their annual activity to reacquaint themselves with the land and the water and their own food in this specific region and territory of the Syilx nation.”