Confederated Tribes of the Colville Indian Reservation fishermen continued their investigation into the use of “selective” commercial-type fishing gear with a venture north of the border this week to snare sockeye salmon from the depths of Lake Osoyoos.
The lake, fed by the Okanagan River, stretches across the U.S.-Canadian border and is the origin of the vast majority of the Columbia River basin’s sockeye run.
The Colvilles had for the previous three weeks been employing a purse seine in central Washington near the confluence of the Okanagan and the Columbia River with little success, catching perhaps 75 fish per day, according to the tribes’ fish and wildlife department director, Joe Peone.
It seems that the “thermal barrier” that usually develops this year at the mouth of the Okanagan was absent. That wall of higher water temperature causes the fish to pause and bunch up, which allows a more efficient capture with the live capture gear.
This is their third year of testing for a variety of live-capture gear that allows the capture of target species, such unlisted sockeye, and the release of, for the most part, unharmed chinook and steelhead that are protected under the Endangered Species Act.
“The river is high, the river is cooler” than normal because of the continued runoff from a greatly higher than normal mountain snowpack, Peone said. As a result the sockeye don’t seem to be pausing on their mission. The Okanogan River flows this week at the mouth were about 4,800 cubic feet per second as compared to 2,000 in an average water year. A month ago when the test fishing began flows were at 12,500 cfs.
“There’s no thermal barrier like there normally would be,” said Howie Wright, Okanagan Nation Alliance fisheries manager. “This year they’re just moving right on through.”
So the Colville Tribes’ took their purse seine boat, Dreamcatcher, north to help their Canadian kin test a new purse seine and help fill tribal stores.
“We try to work together on these things. We’ve been down there too and brought fish over,” said Wright. The ONA was formed in 1981 as the inaugural First Nations government in the Okanagan River Basin and includes the Okanagan Indian Band, Upper Nicola Band, Westbank First Nation, Penticton Indian Band, Osoyoos Indian Band and Lower and Upper Similkameen Indian Bands in Canada. The Colville Confederated Tribes, which reside primarily in Washington but who share a language and culture with the northern tribes, are also ONA members. The ONA mandate is to work collectively to advance and assert Okanagan nation title and fights over the Okanagan Nation territory.
“Historically we were one group of tribes, one nation,” Wright said.
The Canadian tribal communities had purchased a purse seine some 600 feet wide and 90 feet deep with the aim of harvesting sockeye that seem to huddle in late summer in the cool depths of Osoyoos. The ONA is having a purse seine boat manufactured but isn’t ready yet so they called on the Colvilles.
The new net, which is double the depth of one used downriver by the Colvilles, “will get to the depths where the majority of the fish are,” Wright said. The previously used equipment, primarily gill nets, was only efficient at depths of 40 to 50 feet. And the purse seine will allow the tribes to release unharmed non-target fish species. Most of the lake is relatively shallow but one area drops off to nearly 200 feet, Wright said.
About 200-300 sockeye were caught each day during purse seining Wednesday and Thursday. One more outing was planned today. All of the fish will go to tribal members who cannot or do not catch fish on their own, Wright said.
The count of spawning sockeye passing the lower Columbia’s Bonneville Dam this year had reached 185,714 through Thursday but the end is near. The daily counts had dwindled to 13 yesterday. Still, the count to-date would be the fifth highest on a record dating back to 1938. That total is slightly less than 1953, 1955 and 2008 totals, and about half of last year’s record count of 386,525.
A lot of those fish are nearing their destination. The count through July 28 was 97,647 with a count that day of 3,513 at Wells Dam, which is the ninth and final hydro project on the Columbia the Okanagan sockeye pass on their way upstream.
The Colville have for the past week and a half been testing so-called tangle nets, which have a smaller mesh than traditional gill nets, on the Okanagan just below the southern tip of Osoyoos near Oroville. A beach seine may be tried this summer if the tribes locate pockets of harvestable fish, Peone said.
And the construction of fishing scaffolds is under way at the Columbia River’s edge about 2 ½ miles downstream of Chief Joseph Dam. Dip and hoop nets will be used from the scaffolds to harvest salmon.
The tribes are also testing a prototype weir on the Okanagan. The tribes envision a more enduring weir on the river in the future that allows them to collect broodstock for a new hatchery now under construction at Chief Joseph and to capture hatchery chinook that might be straying toward the spawning grounds.
“This year is a good example of why you have to have different tools in the tool box,” Peone said of the unusual water conditions. The Colvilles are testing the variety of selective fishing gear in a variety of locations to find out what works best.
A pound net, another form of live-capture gear, is being developed for testing next year.
The Columbia-Snake river basin is the southernmost part of the sockeye's range. The vast majority of the run returns to the Wenatchee and Okanogan river basins and most of them, about 85 percent, return to the Okanagan. Almost all of the natural production is in the river just below McIntyre Dam. Young fish rear in Osoyoos Lake.
First Nations, federal and provincial governments, Chelan, Douglas and Grant public utility districcts in Washington and others have been engaged in n attempts to improve the lot of Columbia sockeye.
Sockeye restoration has been more vigorous since the 1990s when fewer than 5,000 spawners made it back to Osoyoos and the Okanagan in three of five years.