By Steve Hubrecht
The Columbia Valley’s population of iconic Kokanee salmon got a boost last week.
Volunteers with the Lake Windermere District Rod and Gun Club placed 50,000 fertilized Kokanee eggs on a gravel incubation platform in Abel Creek on Monday, Nov. 6.
About a dozen volunteers were on hand to help put the eggs in incubation tubes and then put those under the gravel in the stream bed.
Although 50,000 fertilized eggs may sound like a lot, it will likely translate to just 100 adult Kokanee salmon. That’s a small step, sure, but also a solid step toward helping bolster the Kokanee run in Abel Creek.
After nearly two decades of lobbying, the District of Invermere finally replaced a culvert on Abel Creek that had been blocking Kokanee trying to migrate up the watercourse. But with expectations, with that hindrance gone, hundreds of the fish would make their way upstream this fall. But that went unfulfilled: Rod and Gun Club volunteers counted just five or six.
“It was a disappointing return,” said Club member Ben Mitchell-Banks, adding no one with the club is 100 per cent sure why so few Kokanee came up Abel Creek, especially when runs on other streams and creeks feeding into the Columbia River were generally quite good.
“It is possible that fish will go to other systems rather than their natal system, but it’s not common,” he said.
The eggs were collected in Fairmont Hot Springs in September, where there was a surplus of spawning salmon this year. Having eggs from Kokanee that are native to the Upper Columbia watershed was important, explained Mitchell-Banks. The eggs were collected by the Freshwater Fisheries Society of B.C. and then stored at the Kootenay Trout Hatchery in Fort Steele. They were brought back up to Columbia Valley last week in two large cooler-like insulated thermoses.
The 50,000 eggs weighed just 3.8 kilograms in total.
“It’s a drop in the bucket, out of the six million eggs we’ve collected across B.C. this year,” Freshwater Fisheries Society hatchery manager Chad Fritz told the volunteers.
The eggs were divided up into eight tubes, which were placed on the incubation platform and then covered with gravel. The eggs will grow into alevin, then fry, before eventually making their way downstream, up to Kinbasket Lake. They will ‘rear’ in Kinbasket, growing to adult size over four years. Once they are fully grown, they will then return to the stream where they were born (their natal stream) to spawn.
Mitchell-Banks explained that Kokanee generally prefer to go to Kinbasket instead of staying in Lake Windermere, because the food sources for Kokanee are superior in Kinbasket.
The Abel Creek Kokanee run is “very important” to the overall Columbia Valley Kokanee population, because Abel Creek is a relatively stable creek, and does not experience the ‘blowout’ events of heavy silt load and debris that happen on Windermere Creek and Fairmont Creek, outlined Mitchell-Banks. The stability of Abel Creek is due in part to the reservoir at Paddy Ryan Lakes.
Another reason the Abel Creek Kokanee run is important is that “there are not that many creeks that feed into Lake Windermere,” added Mitchell-Banks.
This year’s eggs are just the first step in a multi-year program: the Rod and Gun Club plans to do the same thing each fall for eight years.
Earlier this year, Invermere council members had grumbled about being forced to pay for the Abel Creek culvert (which cost $700,000) out of the district’s paving budget, following a ministerial order from the federal government and a deadline that the work be done this year.
Mitchell-Banks addressed that controversy, pointing out that a 2006 report commissioned by the district noted that the Abel Creek culverts were barriers to fish and suggested removing them. In 2018, the Rod and Gun Club presented before council informing the district again that the culvert was not passable for fish and that there was a legal obligation under the federal Fisheries Act for the district to make sure it was.
So, depending on how you count, the district had either five years (since 2018) or 17 years (since 2006) to deal with the culvert, concluded Mitchell-Banks, pointing out that either way “it has been going on for a long time.”