Pacific Lamprey: Rescuing a Species
The Pacific lamprey is ancient fish that has survived ice ages, mass extinctions, and shifting continental plates for hundreds of millions of years. Now, in less than a century, they have declined to the point where their very existence is in peril. The tribes of the Columbia Basin, honor-bound to protect them, are working to restore this important part of the ecosystem and tribal culture.
Pacific lamprey (Entosphenus tridentatus) are one of the 40 members of the lamprey family still found on earth. The lamprey family is one of the oldest of all the vertebrates and is the only living representative of this ancient line. Lamprey have been on earth between 400 and 450 million years (compared to 200 million for sturgeon, 6 million years for salmon, and a minuscule 100,000 years for humans). They appeared during the same era as insects and seed-bearing plants.
After hatching from eggs, lamprey young, called ammocoetes, burrow in the mud and sand of freshwater streams. They are toothless and have only rudimentary eyes. The ammocoetes filter feed on microorganisms from five to seven years, after which they undergo a radical metamorphosis into adult lamprey. This metamorphosis includes rearranging the internal organs and the development of eyes and their characteristic toothed sucking disc. The adult lamprey then migrate to the ocean where they spend one to two years feeding before returning to fresh water to spawn. There is much that science does not know about these ancient creatures. Often treated as a “trash fish,” they have never been a priority for research. This has been changing, particularly due to the efforts of tribal scientists who are focusing their efforts and research on them in an effort to increase our understanding of the Pacific lamprey and give us as much information about them as possible in order to create appropriate and effective restoration plans to rescue this threatened species.
A Cultural Resource
The Pacific lamprey provided an important source of food for the tribes of the Columbia River Basin, who prized them for their rich, fatty meat. They were served alongside salmon at tribal feasts and celebrations. While generally considered a trash fish by the non-tribal population, the tribes have attempted to maintain their connection to the lamprey. As the numbers of returning lamprey declined throughout the Columbia River Basin, the few places that lamprey remained abundant became even more precious—most notably at Willamette Falls at Oregon City, Oregon.
The Threat of Extinction
Similar to salmon, the lamprey life cycle requires relatively pristine freshwater rivers and streams for spawning and rearing, mainstem river conditions conducive to migration to the ocean and back, and favorable ocean conditions. All three of these requirements have been degraded or impacted by human activity in the past 80 years, threatening the existence of this ancient creature. Counts of 400,000 adults were recorded at Bonneville Dam 60 years ago. Current counts are less than 20,000. The lamprey returning to Idaho face an ever more dire situation. In the past eight years, the number of lamprey passing Lower Granite Dam—the last mainstem dam before reaching Idaho—has been in the double digits. With this trend, the tribes are concerned that the lamprey in Idaho could soon go extinct unless something is done to reverse it.
Taking Care of Our Elders
In the past few years, the tribes have been the species’ primary advocates, calling for the protection and restoration of the Pacific lamprey. Lamprey research, restoration projects, and policy creation are being performed by the Yakama, Umatilla, Warm Springs, and Nez Perce tribes and their collective body the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. Two lamprey summits have already been held, bringing together tribal, state, and federal agencies to address lamprey decline and ways to reverse the trend. The Tribal Lamprey Restoration Plan emerged from the efforts of the second lamprey summit, and marks the formal beginning of a coordinated, concerted effort by the region’s governments and agencies to protect and restore these fish whose ancestors swam the earth well before the lands that comprise the Columbia River Basin had even emerged from the primordial ocean.
How You Can Helpor (503) 731-1284.
You can also ‘like’ the Luna the Lamprey Facebook page. This page, run by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, follows a lamprey named Luna on her way upstream from the Pacific Ocean. It is filled with lamprey-related news and information.