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Sockeye salmon to return to Okanagan Lake for first time in over 50 years

For the first time in decades, spawning sockeye salmon will return to Okanagan Lake.

A fish ladder, left inoperable after the Penticton dam was built in the 1950s, has been restored by the Okanagan Nation Alliance and Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

Last week, a crane was used to remove a wooden gate blocking off the narrow concrete passage and opening the way for fish to get through the dam.

It was a momentous occasion for First Nations and conservationists like Lee McFayden.

About a million sockeye salmon will be spawning in Adams River this fall
About a million sockeye salmon will be spawning in Adams River this fall

“To watch that gate go up, and to know that the fish can finally return to their historic grounds, was a tearful moment,” she said.

McFayden is a member of the Okanagan River Restoration Initiative (ORRI) and the Okanagan Similkameen Conservation Alliance (OSCA).

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The ORRI is one of the groups responsible for extensive restoration efforts that have been underway since 2008 to save the Okanagan sockeye.

Construction of dams, channelization, urban encroachment and water management practices have all contributed to the depletion and near extinction of fish stocks within the Okanagan River basin.

“The late 1990s, about 1,000 fish returned, that really is the brink of [extinction],” McFayden said.

First Nations and conservation groups along with the provincial and federal governments have built spawning beds along the river using the right gravel to mimic natural spawning grounds.

Putting salmon in Okanagan lake concerns provincial government
Putting salmon in Okanagan lake concerns provincial government

Fish fry have also been released into creeks that filter into Okanagan River and water flows have been adjusted at downstream dams to allow sockeye safe passage.

Thanks to the restoration efforts, sockeye salmon have made a resurgence.

READ MORE: Rockslide in Fraser River raises salmon concerns

The public was invited to an event at the Penticton dam on Sunday to celebrate the return of sockeye coming home after a perilous 6,000 kilometre journey to the ocean and back.

Many nature lovers were eager to get a glimpse of the new ladder, although it was difficult to spot any fish.

McFayden said upwards of 30,000 sockeye are on route to Penticton, which is considered a low return, but she is optimistic next season will be a banner year.

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And with a passageway through the dam, the fish will finally be able to return home.