Yakama Nation Museum
Plain of color, slimy of skin, devoid of jawline, and nightmarish of mouth, lamprey would handily lose an aquatic beauty pageant. Given their reputation as slimy, blood sucking parasites and invasive pests, they would also place poorly in the personality segment. Even a good result in the talent segment is likely out of their reach, for lamprey are poor swimmers.
Whatever one thinks of the Pacific lamprey's looks and talents, scientists worry their extinction could mean game over for the recovery of Northwest salmon, which rely on lamprey as a food source. The tribes of the Columbia Basin, to whom the lamprey is an important food source and cultural icon, are one of the eel-like fish's only advocates. They, along with a handful of marine biologists, are struggling to save the Pacific lamprey from extinction.
According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the loss of lamprey is already severe, meaning the species has declined more than 70 percent in range or number. In the Columbia River Basin, the numbers of Pacific lamprey have gone from hundreds of thousands at Celilo Falls (the site of the Bonneville dam), to around 10,000 at ttoday. In many inland streams the species is already functionally extinct.
The reputation of these aquatic wigglers has been unfairly sullied by the sea lampreys that invaded the Great Lakes in the 1930s. There, with no predators, they eventually threw the food chain out of whack. But unlike its cousins in the Great Lakes, the Pacific lamprey is no interloper. Having co-evolved with the creatures in its current range, it is an integral part of the northwest marine food chain and ecology.
Lamprey spend half of their ten years as larvae, hunkered in silt beds. Some scientists call them the earthworm of the river. At night they emerge to feed, sometimes becoming prey for nocturnal fish. Like salmon, juvenile Pacific lampreys migrate from streams to the ocean, where they spend most of their adult life.
It is at this stage, which lasts for roughly two years, that they feed by latching on to fish and sucking bodily fluids. Though smaller fish may die from these attacks, the larger fish that are more typically targeted usually survive with a circular scar. Lamprey end their adult life, like salmon, by journeying to inland streams to spawn. Rather than jumping up falls on their upstream journey, lamprey swim until they're tired, then rest by clinging with their mouths to rocks until they regain the strength to continue.
At each stage of their lifecycle, lamprey are food for a number of creatures. Their fatty flesh is high in calories, and along with their poor swimming skills, this makes them a prized and easy catch for fish, birds, and mammals, including seals, sea lions, and people.
While Euro-Americans are largely unaware of lamprey, tribal members of the Columbia Basin have harvested adult lamprey for millennia, roasting and drying them, and extracting their oil to cure earaches and use as a hair conditioner. Lamprey have always been an essential part of the traditional table setting at ceremonial feasts.
"I'm 66 years old, and for all of my life lamprey have been a staple, especially early in my life," says Tony Washines, an elder of the Yakama Nation. "Later on, as scarcity and degradation of the environment increased due to commerce, agriculture, development, pollution, et cetera, lamprey came to be regarded as a rare delicacy of our people rather than as a staple."
Like salmon, lampreys were hard hit by the dam construction boom of the '50s and '60s. Within a few decades lamprey populations had shrunk dramatically, though they could still be found in some places like Eight Mile Creek, where Washines remembers catching half a burlap sack-full in the mid-1960's.
"The last time I can recall I went with two of my aunts who wanted to go harvest," he says. "They said 'Hey, we're hungry for eels.' So I would climb down into the rapids and gather the eels and throw 'em up on the bank, and they'd put 'em in the sack. It was such an integral part of their diet, their lifestyle. They felt a real need to go down and harvest."
Because they resemble eels, Washines and many other tribal members often refer to them as such.
While salmon, as commercially valuable fish, were provided with fishways for passage at many dams, lampreys are often unable to negotiate fish ladders. According to biologists, only one half of adult lampreys manage to swim past a dam, meaning that if there are 5 dams in their way (as there are on nearly every river in the Northwest), only 3 percent of lamprey will make it through all five.
Though they are probably much more endangered than salmon, they are not officially listed as an endangered species because so little is known about them, and therefore did not get passageways of their own until very recently. Even these are still experimental and installed on only a few Northwest dams.
To make matters worse, dams serve as easy pickings for lamprey predators. The narrowness of fish way entries and exits unnaturally concentrates both fish and lamprey, making it easy for predators of all kinds to snag them. When the river flowed freely, juveniles migrating down stream were helped by current the whole way. Now, the slack water behind dams slow fish down, giving predators — especially birds — more opportunities to catch them. The most vulnerable position for lampreys is at the tailraces of dams, where they are stunned by passage. This is where most predation occurs.
The easy pickings attract ever larger numbers of sea lions, terns, gulls, and sturgeon that add to their decline. This is bad too for other fish, not only because they eat young lamprey, but because these numerous predators turn their attention to other fish — such as salmon — when lampreys are scarce.
After another decade, the catches became even smaller. "Most of the tributaries of Yakima River, which are on the Yakama Reservation, used to have a viable run up until the early 1970s at the latest that we could catch for personal use," says Washines. "Maybe in the mid to late 70s in the Klickitat River. But it was a scattered harvest. Maybe a couple a night."
Now, even those scant harvests look good. One of the few places lamprey can still be caught in any numbers is Willamette Falls, because no dams impede their passage to that point. But they nevertheless run a chemical gauntlet, including Portland Harbor — a Superfund site — and culminating with paper mills at the falls themselves. To this day, some tribal members say they can taste chemicals in lamprey harvested there, but until fifteen years ago, it was much worse.
"I have relatives who have gone so far as to state that they were inedible," says Washines. Since then, the mill operators have cooperated with the tribes, timing the release of chemicals to minimize the impact to the harvest.
"Generally other people thought about lamprey eels the way they think about our brother the coyote, and the way they think about varmints. They call them varmints and trash fish, and they never put very much value on their existence," he says. "We thought, 'Well, gee whiz, that means there'll always be plenty for us.' But lo and behold, they, like other fish, were very much influenced by the numbers of people and industrial development."
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