The Regional District of Central Kootenay could ultimately play a role in restoring salmon to the Columbia River system, which is why the Okanagan Nation Alliance sent a delegation to Nelson last week to encourage government officials to help them work towards a green light.
Right now the fish are blocked from reaching Canada by a series of dams, but work has already begun to introduce technologies that will help coax them back upstream. Successfully getting them all the way into the Kootenays will likely involve the renegotiation of the Columbia River Treaty between the U.S. and Canada, a gargantuan task that is looming in the years to come.
But it’s worth the work, according to biologist Michael Zimmer of the Okanagan Nation Alliance (ONA), whose people are known as the Syilx. Representing eight transboundary bands from Penticton and Osoyoos, they have overlapping areas of concern with Washington State’s Colville Confederated Tribes.
“What we’ve learned is the technology is there to get the adults up, the technology is there to get the smolts back down again, so now all it’s going to take is a decision,” he said during his presentation on Thursday morning.
Then he laid out their plan, itemizing the success the Syilx have had so far introducing fisheries, campaigning for support from municipal, provincial and national levels of government, and implementing new technologies into the river system. Each dam presents different challenges, and transporting the fish past them can be accomplished by driving them up in trucks, shooting them through tubes or using fish ladders.
“We’re looking at what does the habitat look like now, because obviously it’s changed. We’ve got a series of brick walls and bath tubs, and that’s a lot different than a free-flowing river,” he said.
“Things are changing, and we want to understand what those changes are. It’s a huge challenge.”
Nelson mayor: ‘You can count on support from us’
Once his presentation was complete Thursday morning, Zimmer invited questions from the RDCK directors — and said though the Syilx aren’t asking for anything specific, they would welcome letters of support. They also asked the communities around the Columbia to consider helping fund some of their initiatives.
When it came time for Nelson Mayor Deb Kozak to speak, she shared some of what she’s learned over the past six years while working on issues surrounding the Columbia River Treaty. She said the RDCK has already been working in tandem with local First Nations and looking at ways they can help encourage the return of salmon.
“What inspires me the most is the transboundary cooperation,” Kozak said.
“I think all residents of the basin have a desire to see this happen. We do work with provincial and national levels of government on this, and we’re very enthusiastic about the prospect of salmon returning to our area.”
But there are a number of things to take into account, she said, including climate disruption and its effect on the fish habitats.
“We’re keenly interested in the effects of climate change, and what we know is some species may not fare well in warming waters. We’re going to have to look at that.”
Biologist: ‘Something needs to be done about invasives’
Besides expressions of support from a number of directors, there were also a number of local issues brought up that relate to the salmon issue: watershed management, invasive fish species and the effects the re-introduction of salmon would have on the environment they’d be returning to after decades away.
Silverton director Leah Main thanked Zimmer for the talk, and invited him to speak to her community — which is applying to create a Wildlife Habitat Area protection zone for bull trout in Silverton Creek.
In his presentation, Zimmer shared of picture of himself holding a 24-pound pike he caught near Zeitsoff-Celgar in Castlegar last fall. He said the ONA is doing river indexing, sending out crews to study population levels and fish health.
“Something needs to be done about these invasives. These pike have grown and established themselves extremely quickly. We’ve learned if they’re not suppressed, they’ll just explode.”
There are already some suppression programs in place, funded by projects such as the Waneta Dam expansion, but currently these pike pose the biggest risk to the ONA’s goals. This is one example of a initiative that could use financial support.
Essentially, director Main told him, he was preaching to the choir — the RDCK already values salmon and supports the idea of bringing them back to the Kootenays.
“I understand the importance of salmon, and I’m so glad you came to share with us today,” she said.