Crowds gathered on the banks of the Penticton Channel Thursday morning to see thousands of sockeye salmon babies off on the start of their journey to the ocean.
The annual Okanagan Nation Alliance fry release is part of an ongoing effort to revitalize the sockeye salmon population in local waterways, and educate the public about the importance of culture and conservation.
“It’s getting bigger every year, it takes a whole team to organize this event that started very small,” said Pauline Terbasket, ONA executive director. “We’ve got schools that now grow the fry, and it’s part of their annual activity to reacquaint themselves with the land and the water, and their own food.”
Over 400 elementary school students from all around the South Okanagan brought the babies they have been raising in their classrooms, and used small cups and buckets to release them into the channel. Many thousands more from the local hatchery were sprayed into the channel along with a chute of water from a long tube.
In total, 52,000 were released Thursday, a small portion of the 4.2 million the ONA fisheries department has been steadily releasing this spring.
“It’s important with some of our restoration objectives, long-term, working with [Fisheries and Oceans Canada] and the province, bringing salmon back as far as Okanagan Lake,” said program manager Howie Wright.
Sockeye salmon swim to the ocean, spend much of their life there and swim the long trek home to spawn and die. In recent years, efforts from the ONA like the fry release have seen steady increases in the number of salmon returning.
“In the 90s, it ranged as low as 2,500,” Wright said. “Now it’s averaging about 50,000 to 100,000.”
The release celebration is both a cultural and educational experience. Teya Gabriel is a young girl who got to set her own bunch of fry free.
“They go in the water and they go to the ocean,” she described. “They swam away!”
“It’s significant in our cultural ways and traditions too care for the land and each other,” Terbasket said.
As the fish entered the water, some were swept ashore onto a sand bank or caught by pebbles, but there were many hands waiting to gently scoop them back into the water.
Fully grown sockeye salmon, some from a release much like Thursday’s four years ago, will return in the fall.
Watch Castanet’s video