Something fishy: Where the environment knows no borders, wildlife may pay a high price

Growing up around Prince Rupert and the Skeena River had a deep impact on Okanagan Nation Alliance fisheries biologist Richard Bussanich, giving him a strong love of everything fish related and developing his grass-roots approach to science and what science can do to improve the world we live in. “You’ve got to remember we’re all here [in the environment] together,” is Bussanich’s credo and it dictates how he does his job for the Okanagan Nation Alliance.

Because of this, he views himself as a jack of all the trades who contributes to a healthy fishery.

He’s been involved with aquaculture at every level from habitat protection to stocking and harvesting. “What I really love to do is transform scientific knowledge so it’s useful at the local level where I can advocate for the environment.”

okanagan-fish-biologists-ONABut his upbringing was more than just messing around on the shore. The life within the water caught his attention and from an early age Bussanich knew what his future would be. After high school he was accepted into the aquaculture program at UBC where he did his undergrad work on fish physiology.

Despite good job offers, he went east to the University of Guelph where he studied under renowned biologist Dr. Richard Moccia. Moccia took an integrated approach. Bussanich studied aquaculture and biology, as well as fishery business management and marketing the highly sustainable product.

Photo:  Fisheries biologist Richard Bussanich in the field working for the Okanagan Nation Alliance.

His success there made him a prized catch in his own right. After returning to the West Coast, Bussanich found himself working on projects from Mills Creek in California to the Aleutian Islands in Alaska.

It was pretty grueling work. It kept him away from home for as much 160 days a year. His wife Tracey has given him both a son and her total support in what has gone beyond being a job.

Through the Nisga’a Fisheries Management Program, Bussanich met Howard Wright, program manager for Okanagan Nation Alliance. The ensuing move to the Okanagan started slowly. Wright invited him to come and have a look at what the the Alliance was doing. An expert fisherman, he set the hook slowly but firmly, finally landing his catch in 2010. For the past six years, Bussanich has been with the Alliance covering the traditional territory of the Syilx-speaking people. These extend from the Okanagan into Washington State and stretches of the middle Fraser and Similkameen Valley.

His most visible project has been the sockeye salmon in Osoyoos Lake (see Okanagan Life, October 2012: Return of the Sockeye). The program is in its twelfth year and until last summer was regarded as a stunning success by Canada’s environmental press. Nearly half a million of the valuable fish were showing up in Osoyoos Lake every summer. Then the dry, warm winter hit. “Those poor fish cooked,” he says reflecting on the fact that reduced snowfall in the high country meant less water in the system, which heated up beyond the salmon’s tolerance range.

“Out of somewhere around 385,000 fish, only 10,000, or less than two per cent, survived to spawn on the lower Columbia. American sport and commercial fishermen harvested around 30 per cent of the survivors even though they’d been asked not to fish in July.”

Where the Okanagan Nation Alliance was expecting a recovery from the devastating winter to take between two to four years, the prognosis is now a lengthy 12 years— and another drought winter is expected.

In part, Bussanich lays the blame at the feet of the Pacific Salmon Treaty, which includes only an interim agreement regarding management of the fish of the Okanagan/Columbia watershed. It needs, he says, to be re-written to take the environment into consideration.

Despite these difficulties, the chance to work with the fish and the people of the Okanagan Nation Alliance, whom he describes as “a hidden gem in terms of organizations,” still gets him out of bed every morning and jazzes his excitement to upper levels.

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