Roughly 10,000 sc’win (sockeye salmon) fry were set free into akɬ xʷuminaʔ (Shingle Creek) last week as part of an ongoing effort to restore the fish’s population throughout the Okanagan Valley’s waterways.
Hundreds of schoolchildren joined syilx community members to ceremonially release the sc’win on Thursday through the Okanagan Nation Alliance’s (ONA) Fish in Schools (FinS) program — which aims to educate about fish and particularly sockeye salmon.
While ONA has already conducted a few ceremonial fry releases at various tributaries this past year, the event in sn’pink’tn (Penticton) was the first fry release of the year for the regional schools participating in FinS, which is celebrating its 19th year in 2023.
Schools in the FinS program are each given 100 sockeye eggs by ONA’s kł cp̓əlk̓ stim̓ Hatchery in the fall season. The eggs are then raised by classrooms through the winter and spring seasons before they are released into the river system through ceremony each May along with other fry from the hatchery.
Following the ceremony’s opening, children watched with pride as the tiny sockeye — still only about the size of anchovies — left their cups and slid down slides that fed straight into the creek connecting to the waters where many of them will grow into full-sized salmon.
More people gathered as the remainder of the sockeye fry were shot out of a large hose, sending hundreds more into the cold stream as drummers overlooked and sang in the background.
With ntytyix (salmon) being one of the syilx Nation’s Four Food Chiefs, the goal of the FinS program is to not only educate regional Youth on the life cycle of salmon, but to have them learn about the fish’s cultural and ecological significance so that they can become better caretakers for salmon and their habitat as they grow older.
“Salmon has always been a food staple for our people for thousands and thousands of years,” said Chief Greg Gabriel of Penticton Indian Band before the ceremony began.
“I applaud the work of ONA fisheries, our band members in each community, that are involved in this important work to keep our salmon surviving, and part of the learning for our children and future generations.”
In addition to the children and Youth in attendance, community members were invited to take a cup full of sockeye fry and say a prayer for them before releasing them into the water.
Herb Alex of kł cp̓əlk̓ stim̓ Hatchery and a member of Osoyoos Indian Band said that there’s special focus given to the Youth in these revitalization efforts because the Youth are the future.
“They’re going to be the caretakers long after we’re gone. We have to let them know that there’s fish in the system and to educate them. If they decide to support the fish, then they’re prepared to do that,” said Alex.
The released sockeye fry will spend a year at Skaha Lake to smolt before heading to the Pacific Ocean next year around this time and will return to local waterways in roughly four years, according to ONA fisheries biologist Kari Alex.
In the last 100 years, Kari noted that there have been three main barriers — McIntyre Dam, Skaha Dam and Okanagan Lake Dam — that have impacted the sc’win’s ability to access and navigate their waterways.
“Okanagan sockeye make up 90 per cent now of the total returns for the Columbia Basin,” Kari explained. “There used to be 25 stocks, now there’s only two: Okanagan and Wenatchee … They’ve all been extirpated, and they were on a very steady decline.”
Since 2008, overall average returns of sc’win have been around 200,000, she noted. Just last year, however, ONA celebrated the largest return of more than 477,000 sc’win.
“The nation has really taken a strong leadership role in not just the hatchery — in river restoration, water management for fish and passage, getting them back into their traditional territories,” said Kari.
The environmental hatchery still has around two million sockeye fry to release this year, according to Herb. In total, there will be nine ceremonial releases happening in May alone throughout syilx homelands. Dates and locations can be found here.
“I hope everybody understands that the fish are here. We need to protect the system in order for them to thrive,” said Herb.
“It’s not just for the salmon and it’s not just for the food — it’s for the whole ecosystem.”