Column: Anglers diverging from fishing of sockeye salmon to kokanee

Great Outdoors by James Murray

Where the waters of the Adams River once ran red with sockeye salmon returning in the fall to spawn and play out their part in the age-old life-cycle of the species, there are now fewer and fewer salmon to be seen.

Their future is uncertain to say the least. Consequently, I find myself among a growing number of anglers who recognize the plight of salmon stocks in our province and have made a conscious decision to no longer fish for sockeye specifically. It would also appear I am among a growing number of anglers who have decided to fish for kokanee instead.

Kokanee salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka) are a non-anadromous form of the sockeye salmon that can be found throughout B.C. and the Yukon in Canada, as well as the northwestern part of the U.S. Kokanee do not migrate to the sea; instead they live out their entire lives in freshwater. While there is still some debate as to whether the kokanee and its sea-going relative are one and the same or two separate species, geographic isolation, failure to interbreed and genetic distinction would suggest a distinct divergence in the history of the two fish. That divergence most likely occurred some 15,000 years ago when a large ice-melt created a series of freshwater lakes and rivers across the northern part of North America. While some members of the salmon family (salmonids) went out to sea (anadromous), others stayed behind in fresh water (non-anadromous).

When both occupy the same waters during the spawn, the two populations, however, do not mate together. There is also some morphological divergence between the kokanee and sockeye. Most noticeably a difference in size. Kokanee are smaller than sockeye. As a freshwater-based fish, they are much smaller than sea-going sockeye due to less food availability. Their main food source is plankton.

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The typical life cycle of the kokanee is similar to that of other salmon. They are born in a stream and migrate to a lake where they will spend most of their adult lives. Kokanee typically live for four years in a lake before heading back to their spawning grounds to spawn and die. During spawning, the males turn bright red and develop a humped back and an elongated jaw similar to the male sockeye salmon. The female also turns a dark red hue during the breeding season which corresponds with the breeding season of sockeye. The major difference though between the kokanee and sockeye salmon is that there are plenty of kokanee.

The Freshwater Fisheries Society of British Columbia is actively working to increase the number of kokanee fishing opportunities for anglers in our province. In response to requests from an ever increasing number of anglers, a significant number of lakes in the Central Interior of the province are being stocked regularly with kokanee to provide a recreational fishery. The FFSBC say they are excited about the prospect of developing new kokanee fisheries they also say there is a need to proceed with some caution.

According to the FFSBC website, “fisheries managers are continually assessing which kokanee stocks are best suited for stocking into particular lakes, and, through the development of special kokanee stocks as a management tool for recreational fisheries in the province, the FFSBC hopes to improve the fishing experience for all anglers, increase participation among novice and lapsed anglers, and at the same time address conservation concerns for wild fish populations.”

It’s hard to say whether or not the sockeye will ever return in numbers like those that once turned the Adams River red. Their future lies in the hands of the Federal Government and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. What is certain though is the Freshwater Fisheries Society is actively working to create an alternative sport fishery.

There is a certain irony, however, that the alternative to the sockeye fishery is kokanee.


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