“It starts with the water. If you don’t have good water, the plants and animals will tell us we aren’t doing our job…They are an important part of our family – if a place doesn’t have plants and animals, it won’t have humans.” – Chief Clarence Louie, Osoyoos Lake Water Science Forum, September 18, 2011.
Welcome to the Salmon Nation. One day into the Osoyoos Lake Water Science Forum and my head is filled with fish. For thousands of years, the Okanagan people fished sockeye here. They are salmon people – with a territory stretching south to Oregon and north and east through the southern interior of BC. We are here in Osoyoos this week to talk about a lot of different issues, but none more symbolic and integrative than the return of the sockeye.
The Osoyoos sockeye run is the eastern frontier for fish coming up the Columbia. The run used to reach far up the system, but dozens of smaller dams interrupted the passage. Last night, Chief Clarence Louie told a story about how when the Grand Coulee dam was completed, they invited the chiefs and dancers to come and celebrate in their regalia. “There is a picture of all these chiefs, standing and looking at the dam, and I just think, how sad that is, how mad and disappointed those chiefs must be, knowing that the dams have taken away the salmon.”
The Okanagan Nation Alliance fisheries department, with their partners in the Colville Confederated Tribes in Washington, have led an amazing recovery effort for the Okanagan run – restoring habitat, rearing and releasing fry, monitoring stocks, water quality, and fish flows. Next year there could be as many as a million fish coming back. It is a heroic story that gives us hope for other kinds of environmental recovery.
On Friday this week, I spent much of the day listening to the Cohen Commission Inquiry – up on the 8th floor of the federal building in downtown Vancouver. The inquiry is investigating the crash of the Fraser River salmon run. The topic of the day was water management, licensing, extractions, and hydro-power. In a large, low ceilinged and carpeted room, teams of lawyers conferred quietly before going up to microphones and computer screens to cross examine witnesses and enter evidence into the record. I was there as a citizen, observing.
Everyone I spoke with there was very serious, high stakes, but with a sense of ambiguity. It didn’t seem clear to anyone what the outcome could or should be. The salmon seemed a world away from that hushed, modern courtroom.
This week, we’ll be talking about many of the same matters as the Cohen Inquiry, but in a very different gathering. Whatever the eventual outcome of the Osoyoos Lake Water Science Forum, it feels right and good to be here at the lake, where the salmon are.