Why Some In The Northwest Want More Of These Jawless, Eel-Like Creatures

A Pacific Lamprey affixed to an aquarium, before being released at Ahtanum Creek last May 24.Tim Hill Washington Department of Ecology
A Pacific Lamprey affixed to an aquarium, before being released at Ahtanum Creek last May 24.
Tim Hill Washington Department of Ecology

By Rae Ellen Bichell, KPLU

Jawless and eel-like with concentric rings of teeth, the Pacific lamprey’s unsavory looks may be one reason why populations have declined. Now, some people are taking charge of restoring the fish.

While it’s an important source of food for juvenile salmon and contribute to rivers the way earthworms do to soil, the Pacific lamprey is not exactly a charismatic animal.

“When I first saw these fish, I thought, ‘My gosh, it looks like that Sarlacc mouth in Return of the Jedi.’ It just looks like something that’s going to swallow you up,” said Sean Connolly, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Portland, and collaborator on a 1o-year project to restore the fish. (In case you were wondering, a Sarlacc mouth is a gaping abyss of tentacles and teeth.)

“On the flip side of it, it has these incredible blue eyes. It has this look of something remarkable you’ve never see. And when you study these organisms and see them, they actually look quite vulnerable,” Connolly said.

They are vulnerable. In the past few decades, regional populations plummeted, hitting an all-time low in 2010. In the ’60s, people decided the lamprey was an eel-like river vermin worthy of extermination.

“Back in the ’60s and ’70s, people dropped rotenone in the rivers and streams to try to kill all the trash fish. Because that’s what they’re considered: trash fish,” said Patrick Luke, a biologist with the Yakama Nation Fisheries. “But at the same time, they tried to increase the production of trout, salmon, sturgeon, those types of species.”

As big hydropower project began to come online in the northwest, dams were problematic, too.

“When folks were building those facilities and thinking about passage for salmon and steelhead, they weren’t really thinking about a fish like a lamprey, which can’t jump,” Connolly said. “And so what we’ve seen is some pretty substantial declines, over time and definitely historically.”

Those declines were sharp enough to earn the lamprey the nickname “the lost fish.” Emily Washines, who works with the Yakama Nation Fisheries, says she remembers when they they started disappearing from the dinner table.

“It would be the equivalent, I guess, of going to a Mariners game and not having hot dogs anymore,” Washines said of the lamprey’s absence. “It was so much a part of our ceremonies, so much intertwined in our lives that to have the numbers sharply decrease, just within my generation, is so noticeable.”

The Pacific lamprey’s invasive cousin, the Sea lamprey, hasn’t helped. It has marauded Great Lakes waters for a while now. But here in the Pacific Northwest, where the fish is native, the larvae feed juvenile salmon and steelhead, rather than feeding on them. That’s one reason why tribes and government agencies have funded the Pacific Lamprey Restoration Plan, which involved releasing buckets of them into Yakama streams. It’s funded by government grants and through the 2008 Columbia Basin Fish Accords with Bonneville Power Administration.

“Just think what the earthworms do on land,” said Patrick Luke. “These lamprey larvae do the same thing in the substrates of rivers and streams: they aerate, they fix nutrients for microbes and organisms that feed salmon and other aquatic organisms.”

His goal is to get the fish populations back up, though maybe not to the level that earned them the nickname “Columbia River hot dog.”

Recovering ‘The Lost Fish’

Source: Northwest Public Radio

Pacific lamprey are the oldest known fish in the Columbia River System. Fossils indicate they were here 450 million years ago.

lamprey mouth
A Pacific lamprey, caught
at Willamette Falls in Oregon.

But in mid-20th centrury tribal fishers started noticing their numbers dwindling. Rivers once clogged with lamprey reached a historic low in 2010, said Brian McIlraith, lamprey project leader at the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

The toothy, eel-like fish are an important part of tribal diets and a good indicator of ecosystem health. But salmon and steelhead recoveries have overshadowed the decline of the lamprey, which some non-tribal fishers considered a “trash fish.”

To help raise awareness about the lamprey CRITFC, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Freshwaters Illustrated have released a documentary about efforts to recover the Pacific lamprey — before the fish are put on the endangered species list.

The documentary travels to all the Columbia River tribes to highlight different lamprey projects, from harvesting lamprey at Willamette Falls — which I can tell you is a wet, slippery, exciting job — to trucking the fish around dams.

Right now, CRITFC is holding screenings for the tribes. The East Oregonian reports about 35 people came to a showing in Pendleton, Ore. Organizers hope to screen the documentary around the Pacific Northwest in the future.

Lamprey returned to Yakima River basin


Lamprey release on Tuesday, May 14, 2013. (SARA GETTYS / Yakima Herald-Republic)
Lamprey release on Tuesday, May 14, 2013. (SARA GETTYS / Yakima Herald-Republic)

Posted on May 15, 2013

By Phil Ferolito

Yakima Herald-Republic

 WHITE SWAN, Wash. — After being largely absent for nearly a half-century, an old friend of the Yakamas — the Pacific lamprey — is being reintroduced to its home waters in the Yakima River basin.

On Tuesday, a handful of Yakama Nation biologists released 44 of the prehistoric, eel-like creatures into Toppenish and Simcoe creeks, where they have not been seen since the 1970s. The move is part of a larger project to restore the once vibrant Pacific lamprey not only in the Yakima River basin, but throughout the Northwest.

“This reintroduction is definitely a sacred time for our tribe,” project manager Patrick Luke said just before the release of adult lamprey into Simcoe Creek. “It’s just one step in a larger restoration project.”

After decades of considering lamprey a parasite that merely fed on other fish, federal and state authorities are now heeding what Northwestern tribes have long said — lamprey play an important role in the ecosystem and subsequently improve the survival rate of other species, such as salmon. Roughly 50 years ago, dams began blocking lamprey — which spend roughly two years in the ocean — from much of the Columbia River and its tributaries. With the ancient creature facing extinction, five states, along with federal agencies and several tribes, have embarked on a massive restoration project.

As part of a historic 10-year, $900 million fish-restoration accord the Army Corps of Engineers reached in 2008 with four Columbia River tribes — Yakama, Umatilla and Warm Springs — $5 million a year is being spent on lamprey restoration.

Although another species of lamprey is present in the Yakima River basin — Western brook lamprey that do not migrate — Tuesday’s release was the first significant step taken by the tribe to revive this anadromous creature to its ancestral waters, where they will spawn and hopefully return.

Although the cultural significance of the salmon to the Yakamas is generally understood, that of the lamprey has long been overlooked. They too were a staple in the diet.

Lamprey bring nutrients from the ocean to rivers and streams when they return to spawn. But lamprey also help protect salmon: Because they have a richer oil, birds and other predators usually feed on them first, biologists said.

“It’s a wonderful day for the lamprey and it’s also exciting for all the other species in the ecosystem,” said biologist Ralph Lampman.

Lamprey begin life as larvae and grow to about 2 feet long. Adults return to areas where they smell the baby larvae, Luke said. And the larvae offer nutrients as well, he said.

“What worms do in the ground is what lamprey do in the water as larvae,” he said.

Called asúm by the Yakamas, lamprey have existed for 450 million years and predate dinosaurs, according to fish biologists.

They once were prevalent throughout the Northwest, said Luke, who fished for them as a child.

“There would be so many, they’d turn the water black,” he said of the creature with a disk-shaped mouth lined with tiny, pointy teeth. “They used to call it the maiden hair.”

The lamprey released Tuesday were plucked from The Dalles and John Day dams, which they rarely make it past, and kept at the tribe’s hatchery in Prosser, project leader Luke said.

Hatchery supplementation will be used to restore lamprey, but the goal is to rebuild a natural run, he said.

Like a sucker fish, lamprey latch onto rocks to move through swift currents and to navigate falls. But when fish ladders were installed at dams, the lamprey wasn’t considered, Luke said.

Lamprey cannot make their way past the sharp corners of the weirs in fish tunnels and ladders. They need rounded edges they can move around, he said.

At the request of Columbia River tribes, the Corps of Engineers began looking at lamprey before the historic accord was signed, and installed two lamprey ramps at Bonneville Dam in 2002. Similar structures, which aren’t cheap, would need to be installed elsewhere throughout the Columbia and Yakima river basins to improve lamprey survival, Lampman said.

“That’s a really hard fix,” he said. “That’s not going to happen overnight.”

Meanwhile, efforts to use hatchery-raised lamprey and to relocate wild lamprey pulled from the lower Columbia River will continue, Luke said.

Today, Yakama biologists will release another group of lamprey into Satus Creek southeast of Toppenish. And next week, another release will occur at Ahtanum Creek near Union Gap.

“That’s why it’s so important,” he said. “We’re not going to win this war with giant steps — it’s going to be a lot of little steps.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct that the Nez Perce are not part of the accord with the Army Corps of Engineers.

• Phil Ferolito can be reached at 509-577-7749 or pferolito@yakimaherald.com.