Kokanee 101: An interview with Will Warnock

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Posted in:  Conservation, Water
Will Warnock

Last week, I had the pleasure of chatting with Will Warnock, Aquatic Biologist for the Ktunaxa Nation Council. I wanted to learn more about Kokanee and I’d heard he was the person to ask. Here’s our conversation.

Lindsay: Hi Will. Maybe you could just introduce yourself and tell us what you do for a living?

Will: So I’m a biologist with the Ktunaxa Nation Council. I deal with a lot of Aquatic Resource Management issues for the Ktunaxa Nation related to fisheries in particular—a lot of addressing what the impacts might be to aquatic ecosystems and fish populations resulting from the hydro dam infrastructure that’s built through the Columbia Basin.

Lindsay: Seems like a big job.

Will: Yeah there are a lot of hydro dams in the basin so there’s no shortage of things to talk about for sure.

L: So for me, in fall, I always think about salmon and Kokanee because they’re present in our streams and water systems. So I just wondered if you could tell us a little bit about Kokanee: what are they? Where are they? How did they get there? I’ve heard some are native and some aren’t…

W: OK so with Kokanee, we often think of them as a distinct kind of species on their own but they are actually sockeye salmon that have been landlocked. So instead of going out to the ocean and back like a sockeye would—like when you think of the sockeye in the Fraser River that are returning to the Adams in the fall—Kokanee are exactly the same species, but instead of going to the ocean and back, they typically go to a large lake to live as adults. And then they return to small streams or sometimes large streams and they typically spawn when they’re about three years of age. They undertake the life cycle of a typical salmon, where they die after they spawn their eggs.

They dig a nest called a “redd” in the gravel in the stream—they require flowing water to spawn in—and so they dig a nest in the gravel and then they deposit the eggs and then cover them up with the gravel. Over the winter, the eggs that have been fertilized develop as embryos and hatch the following spring. When they hatch out of the gravel they swim up and get swept downstream to the lake that their parents lived in. So that’s kind of how the life cycle goes for Kokanee

There’s actually relatively few places within the Columbia Basin that Kokanee are native to. I know of three native populations: the Arrow Lakes, the Slocan and Kootenay Lake. Within these different systems, especially Kootenay Lake, we know that there were different native populations that were all within that lake. So for example, the main body of the lake has different kinds of Kokanee than the ones that live in the West Arm over by Nelson. So there are two separate populations within that lake—actually historically we probably had more than that within Kootenay Lake itself. So there’s only three lakes that would have had native populations, but there might have been multiple populations within those lakes.

But now they are much more widely distributed through the Columbia Basin. There’s a few small lakes that have been stocked and those are more just kind of put-and-take fisheries. But there’s other places where they undergo the whole complete life cycle and they’re wild. So from Golden down to Tobacco Plains at the U.S. Canada border—the whole Kootenay and Columbia River systems up there have non-native Kokanee populations and those were introduced and they have a habitat now in large lakes because of the creation of large reservoirs—Columbia River Treaty dam reservoirs in particular. Like the ones that you see in the very upper Columbia come from Kinbasket reservoir. The population established maybe only about 30 years ago. And same thing, about maybe 30 years ago or so in Koocanusa reservoir for the upper Kootenay Kokanee that you see distributed, well, throughout the upper Kootenay now.

Spawning Kokanee

L: I heard that there was a collapse in the Kootenay Lake Kokanee population. Is that true?

W: Yes that is true. It happened several years ago. The average number of spawners that they historically had was into multiple hundreds of thousands, even into the millions of fish that could spawn on any given year. So quite abundant. They collapsed down to a few thousand spawners over the last several years.

L: What was the cause of that?

W: There actually was a team of technical experts that the province put together a few years ago to basically address exactly that question.

The lake is monitored quite closely for a lot of different things: there’s a nutrient restoration program going on and there’s all sorts of Lake science, we call that limnology, that goes on in that lake system. So there’s quite a bit of monitoring that goes on on the lake itself as well as on the Kokanee population and the fish that eat Kokanee. Although ample evidence suggests that abundant predators drove the collapse and continue to challenge recovery, it is possible other factors may have also contributed. The Kokanee population will recover, but it may take some time.

L: And what are the Kokanee’s predators?

W: They have two main predators in the lake. There’s likely others but none would exert as much pressure as these two, and they are other fish that are in the lake. One is the bull trout, which is a large bodied predatory fish that lives in rivers and lakes and then the other is a pretty unique native strain of rainbow trout that we call the Gerard rainbow trout. They spawn in the Lardeau River between Trout Lake and Kootenay Lake, and those fish have always been there and they’ve adapted to a habitat where they eat Kokanee. So they get quite large.

Bull trout

L: You spoke a bit about how Kokanee are a species of sockeye salmon. And I just wondered if you could tell me a little bit about what First Nations in the Columbia Basin in our region are doing to bring back anadromous salmon, salmon that swim to the ocean.

W: It’s something that First Nations have been a strong advocate for and have really taken leadership over trying to get salmon restored to the Columbia Basin. This goes back probably to the 1990s, and at that time three different First Nations within the Columbia Basin came together and tried to form a commission to guide salmon restoration. There’s been a lot of work that’s happened between now and then but there has been more recent work that the organization that I work for, the Ktunaxa Nation Council, as well as other First Nations have done to look at some of the feasibility work for how you would go about salmon restoration.

Different First Nations have implemented various scientific programs to investigate how we might go about salmon restoration. So there been some studies done that have looked at some of the habitat that you might restore. Because the habitat has changed since salmon were lost to the system—there’s been a lot of hydro development and a lot of other impacts to the river and different places that salmon would return to—we need to know if that habitat is still suitable for them, if they can still complete their life cycles.

There’s also a lot of work that First Nations have done to try and get a lot of support for this through other kinds of regulatory means, or through through means of other kind of initiatives going on in the Basin and things like the Columbia River Treaty. So trying to really advocate for salmon restoration to be part of a renegotiated treaty, trying to get a collaborative working group together with the provincial government, federal governments, dam operators and other entities to try and guide salmon restoration. So there has been a lot of relationship-building work.

There’s also a lot of interest on the U.S. side, particularly from tribes in the U.S., to restore salmon up above Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee dams, because those are the two dams on the Columbia that really restrict them in moving into Canada. If you didn’t have those barriers there, they would make it up into the Columbia River around Castlegar and Trail and that area.

L: Thanks for answering my questions so thoroughly, Will! Have a great day. 

W: You’re welcome. You too.