The salmon are coming back! The salmon are coming back!
Where’s Paul Revere when we need him?
Last year, a fish ladder, left inoperable after the Penticton dam at the foot of Okanagan Lake was built in the 1950s, was restored by the Okanagan Nation Alliance and Fisheries and Oceans Canada. For the first time in 60 years, sockeye salmon can ascend from the Columbia River into Okanagan Lake again.
At the same time, kokanee are rebounding.
Kokanee are land-locked salmon. Unlike their sockeye cousins, they don’t go down to the sea. They spend their lives in lakes. Some spawn along the shorelines; some return to the lakes’ tributary streams, just like the ocean-going salmon.
A small item in the regional newspaper reported that an estimated 388,000 kokanee had spawned this year, either in streams or along the shoreline. That’s more than double last year’s 185,000. Better yet, it’s more than double the ten-year average.
That’s still a far cry from the times when the kokanee run on Mission Creek — according to oral tradition — turned the river “run red”.
The Okanagan Fisheries Foundation notes that “once-huge kokanee runs.. have declined enormously. Dams and weirs have blocked runs. Flood control efforts in Mission Creek reduced spawning by over 70%.
And a misguided attempt to increase kokanee stocks introduced mysis shrimp to the lake in the 1960s. The consensus now is that the shrimp, rather than supplementing the kokanee diet, competed for it.
“The spawning population was around a million adults,” says Piscine Energetics (PE) president Nuri Fisher. “But after they introduced mysis, it crashed completely; the kokanee were starving.”
More recently, the tide has turned in favour of kokanee. Better planning for lowering lake levels, in preparation for spring runoff, has protected shore spawners. Habitat reclamation has restored streambeds. Forestry controls have reduced flooding and silting.
So the kokanee are back.
I expect that almost everyone will cheer these results. I’d like to know why.
It may be — I hope — because people have a sense of identity with nature. They want to see the natural environment functioning as it used to, before too many humans fouled it up.
They want experience the awe of watching salmon obsessively thrash their way upstream over rocks and gravel bars, to give birth to a new generation.
That’s certainly the attraction of Roderick Haig-Brown park on the Adams River, probably the best known salmon spawning run in the province.
The Adams River run brings thousands of paying tourists to the Shuswap region.
Does the return of kokanee runs simply mean more tourist dollars?
I hope it’s not just because there’s a commercial benefit.
There has never been a commercial kokanee fishery on Okanagan Lake -- although I’m told that some of the Japanese families used gill nets along the shore for a time.
Ironically, the lake does have a commercial fishery now — netting mysis shrimp for pet food.
The lake’s sport fishery has a significant commercial value. An Okanagan Water Board publication estimated that sport fishing generated $21.5 million a year.
Bluntly put, are salmon simply a means to an end? A benefit to our economy, our revenues?
I hope not.
I will probably be accused of being hopelessly idealistic for arguing that the salmon deserve to be celebrated simply because of who they are.
This has nothing to do with educational programs. Nor with fishing. Nor with tourism.
Salmon deserve to exist simply because they are here. Like trees and magpies, they don’t exist for ours benefit.
To my mind, the most dangerous verses in the Bible come at the end of the first Creation story in Genesis 1:26-30. God gives humans “dominion” — as the King James version puts it; other translations say “power” or “control” — over all plant and animal life, to do whatever we damn well want with it, for our own purposes.
Those four verses, I submit, have provided justification for cutting forests, building dams, spouting pollutants, spraying defoliants, burning oil, slaughtering animals, and paving meadows — because God told us to go ahead and do it.
Let’s be consistent. If God created life, then every form of life is sacred. Holy. Valued for its own sake.
Equally, if life came into being some other way, if life has evolved so that it made human life possible, then every form of life should also be valued for its own sake. Sacred. Holy. Entirely aside from what it’s worth to us economically.
Either way, the return of salmon to our shores and streams is cause for celebration.
Jim Taylor is an Okanagan Centre author and freelance journalist.