Screen Shot 2014-09-10 at 2.32.53 PMYou probably wouldn’t think it, but sockeye salmon are an integral force to the well being and survival of our western interior and Pacific coastal communities and ecosystems.  I know, I know.  You’re probably thinking – what, fish?  Really?   Yes really.  This is not some dubious fear-mongering conspiracy theory brewed up by a few red nosed quacks in lab coats.  But don’t take our word for it.  Just lend an open ear to the voice of countless dedicated men and women who have studied the fundamental structure, health and importance of salmon in our Pacific coastal and interior ecosystems for the past several decades.  Their committed, decisive science labors to root out determining factors, variables and contingencies of the environment’s ultimate survival; the survival of which symbiotically effects the continuance of our own species, the illustrious homo sapien sapien.  In nature, we know everything is interconnected.  We know this because the term, interconnected has become a bit of a semantic cliche.  Something we are slightly weary of hearing.  Especially in this post-Al Gore era (too bad David Suzuki).
During the last decade, the environment has catapulted from a, “who cares” vacuum of social consciousness, into ultra celebrity status quo.  It’s trendy now to recycle.  Hybrids and electrics are all the rage.  Vintage is vogue and what’s hip is hemp.  But the environment is not a new thing.   Neither is conservation. (Remember those crafty cartoonish diagrams depicting water cloud and rain you so eagerly wanted to draw all over with your cherry-smelling marker in grade school?)  In fact, the conservation movement goes far beyond your early education years, traced back to John Evelyn’s Sylva in 1662.  It may also come as a bit of a shock to learn that salmon and their environment have been around for nearly 6 million years, (that’s only roughly 5.8 million years on us).  So maybe there’s some stock in this whole interconnection thing that warrants a deeper look.  If our lungs depend on trees to breath, our stomachs on the working of bees, our brains, the ocean and our skin and organs on bacteria, it’s reasonable to assume a sneeze or a wiggle of the feet would intrinsically affect the entire organism.  And that works both ways.  So what about the salmon?  Screen Shot 2014-09-10 at 2.33.12 PM
Coastal watersheds and estuaries where salmon migrate and spawn, are among the most productive biological communities on earth.  Home to marine mammals such as seals, terrestrial fauna and resident and migratory birds, these watersheds produce food and fiber for the people of the Pacific Rim with large runs of salmon, trout and char, and plumes of commercially profitable shellfish and fish.  Coastal watersheds are also responsible for sustaining the temperate rain forests of the Pacific Northwest, which produce more standing biomass than any terrestrial ecosystem on the planet.  (Brings a whole new appreciation to those boardwalks under the canopy of cedar that float over a blanket of skunk cabbage and fern, doesn’t it?)  Salmon alone are one of the best species indicators of coastal and estuary ecosystem health.  Salmon runs function as giant pumps, injecting vast amounts of marine nutrients upstream to the headwaters of rivers that maintain relatively low productivity.  Salmon carcasses are the primary food for aquatic invertebrates and fish, as well as terrestrial fauna, (from marine mammals to birds to terrestrial mammals, particularly bears and humans).  Historically, few animals have been as integral to the human experience as salmon. But this exciting, integrating outlook and back story on salmon may be somewhat overshadowed by the inconvenient truth of present day salmon decline.

Screen Shot 2014-09-10 at 2.33.49 PMUnited States sockeye salmon populations are currently listed under both the US Endangered Species Act and threatened species lists by the National Marine Fisheries Service in Idaho, Oregon and Washington areas.  Canada is also not immune.  In the past, we have experienced similar decline of sockeye salmon in the Fraser and Okanagan Rivers.  Due to the impact of environmental changes, marine ecology, (ocean acidifcation), aquaculture, predators, diseases and parasites, (including farmed salmon hatchery diseases), contaminants, water temperature and governmental management of the productivity of salmon runs, the ability of the sockeye salmon to reach traditional spawning grounds or the ocean has been inhibited.  Proposed legislative efforts, such as the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act however, attempt at establishing protective measures in the headwaters of the sockeye salmon by preventing industrial development in road-less areas.  Now, as of June 2012, record numbers of a once-waning population of sockeye salmon have been returning to the Northwest’s Columbia Basin, proving that these kinds of legislation actually work.  And this is where interconnection comes into play.  The causal affect.  This year’s fishing season saw the largest return of sustainable sockeye salmon in British Columbia in almost 80 years.  That’s right.  Since 1938, when the salmon count first began.  The bountiful return beset Osoyoos Lake, (a gem of a water basin, abutting the Osoyoos Desert and buffeting the borders of Canada and the United States).  This is truly a miraculous feat, especially when considering the ominous waning of salmon numbers in the mid 1990s.  A true testament to the hard work and dedication of the Okanagan Nation Alliance Fisheries Department, who labored tirelessly on restoration projects, information was collected based on tagging studies and  the number of salmon that went over Wells Damn.  Estimates ran into the 300,000 range.  Consequently, The Department of Fisheries and Oceans opened the season for the sport fishing community to angle these wild pink fish from August 19th until Sept 2nd, requiring naught but a fishing license and the purchasing of salmon tags.  This new stock supply proved great momentum for tourism too.  Attracting anglers and sport fishermen from all across the Pacific North West, to fill resorts and hotels, cheer up cafes and restaurants and communicate an economic insurgence throughout the localities.  Roadside stands selling the catch of the day were also setup by Nk’mip Resort, catering to an eagerly revolving door of wine visitors, campers, recreational tourists, locals and passers-through, all of whom are spreading the word.  Although salmon fishing still remains small-scale, it may one day serve to compliment the vivacious wine tourism industry.  With salmon making its way into Skaha and eventually Okanagan lakes, the future appears bright.

However, before you go off hop, skipping into the sunset, let’s be clear about one thing: just because we’ve seen a return of salmon to the Okanagan Valley, doesn’t mean all our troubles are over, (or at the very least, prolonged).  The wound runs deep, the likes of which will not heal or medicate with just a band-aid.  What we need is more awareness and involvement in environmental conservation and protection.  To educate our children and cultivate greater insight into the interconnected workings of the natural world, so that they will in turn be at the vanguard of saving our planet.  Salmon conservation is not just a good start, it is an excellent start.  But it is only the start.  Just like the salmon run – the perilous struggle, hardship and determination – the onus of the rest of the journey is on all of us.