Our Klamath Basin Water Crisis
Upholding rural Americans' rights to grow food,
own property, and caretake our wildlife and natural resources.
Three of these lampreys inhabit the Lower Klamath River and this review - possible listing - will affect the Klamath Project. For more information, check out the Klamath Bucket Brigade's website. Pictures, ranges, maps, size, etc. All information supplied by FishBase. ~ Barb www.klamathbucketbrigade.org
Feds agree to consider Endangered Species Act
protection for lamprey
GRANTS PASS, Ore. -- The U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service has agreed to review
whether four species of lamprey found on the West
Coast should be protected by the Endangered
Any yearlong reviews deemed valid would be done by Nov. 15, 2002.
"Lamprey have declined
dramatically and need the safety net of the
Endangered Species Act to survive," said Joseph
Vaile of the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center.
Lamprey's beauty runs more than slime-deep
This story was published Wednesday, December 1st, 2004
Pity the poor lamprey.
Not only are its numbers dwindling, but this misunderstood, eel-like fish also suffers the indignity of being unfairly maligned as a junk fish.
It's true the non-native sea lamprey is causing problems in the Great Lakes, but the West Coast varieties shouldn't pay the price for a distant cousin's damage.
In all, about 50 species of lamprey exist, but the one that so plentifully populated the Columbia River and its tributaries is called the Pacific lamprey.
Millions of them lived in West Coast rivers and migrated to the sea. The Eel River in California earned its name for the great "wriggling masses of lampreys" pushing upstream for spawning season each year, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.
But numbers alone never earned the Pacific lamprey the respect it deserves. Its reputation as a blood-sucking parasite probably hasn't helped. Neither has its appearance, which is something like a cross between a banana slug and a jungle leech with teeth.
But even blood-sucking parasites have their place in nature's plan. As more is known about the lamprey, it's clear this homely creature has a role that's far more complex than first impressions would indicate.
Or at least it did.
Not enough Pacific lampreys remain to adequately fill the species' niche. Counts of Pacific lamprey at Ice Harbor Dam dropped from 50,000 in the early 1960s to fewer than 1,000 during the 1990s. Counts on the North Umpqua River in Oregon had declined from about 47,000 in 1966 to fewer than 50 a year since 1995.
But when the species was plentiful, juvenile lampreys fed on bits of plant material in numbers sufficient to help keep rivers running clear. After spawning, the carcasses replenished nitrogen levels and other nutrients in freshwater streams.
It's true that in their oceangoing blood-sucker stage, Pacific lampreys attach themselves to salmon and other fish, which sometimes weaken and die as a result. But when the slow-moving lampreys numbered in the millions, they also provided a salmon substitute for sea lions and other predators, filling the bellies of these would-be salmon killers. The net effect was beneficial.
Traditionally, Mid-Columbia tribes harvested lamprey, using their dried meat for subsistence, ceremonial and medicinal purposes, but not enough of the fish remain. The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation are working to restore the Pacific lamprey as a way of also preserving Indian culture.
Both are noble goals.
Tribes trying to restore lampreys
This story was published Sunday, November 28th, 2004
By Anna King Herald staff writer
MISSION, Ore. -- The snakelike lamprey didn't look happy to be plucked from its holding tank.
It coiled back, trying to strike its captor with a mouthful of rasping teeth.
"They don't like to be held," said Aaron Jackson as he struggled to retain his grip.
Jackson, a fisheries technician for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, has spent eight years working with lampreys. The slithering creature was being held at a salmon hatchery on the South Fork of the Walla Walla River.
Hundreds of lampreys collected from the mouth of the Columbia River are kept in hot tub-sized tanks until they are mature enough to spawn. Then the fish are released into the Umatilla River and nearby streams.
"These are my babies," Jackson said. "As far as I'm concerned, they're like my kids."
And his kids are in trouble. Populations of Pacific lampreys, often mistaken for eels with their small, beady eyes, gills and boneless bodies, have dwindled.
The fish live in the Mid-Columbia's rivers and streams for much of their life cycle.
Tribal elders, who recall times when the lampreys were so plentiful they were harvested by the sackfull, now say there are barely enough for tribal members to have a small taste of the delicacy during important ceremonies.
"There was a time when there was an abundance of them and we didn't have to worry," said Jay Minthorn, a member of the tribes' board of trustees who lives in Tutuilla Flats near Mission. "Now we have to compete with our own tribes. We have to say how much we need, and we never get even that."
The situation hasn't gone unnoticed. The tribes have been paying for restoration of the fish in their tribal streams, and other Mid-Columbia tribes also are concerned. In October, the first-ever lamprey summit was held in Portland to discuss the Northwest population's marked decline.
The boneless fish are poor swimmers and move upstream by hugging riverbanks, wriggling and holding onto rocks with their suction-cup mouth. They are ill-equipped to travel past the Columbia's dams and have trouble negotiating the fish ladders designed for strong-swimming salmon. Lamprey like to climb smooth rock faces near the river's edge where the currents are not as swift.
At Bonneville Dam, new lamprey ladders are being tested with some success, Jackson said.
But there are three large dams the lamprey have to pass to get to tribal lands and into the Umatilla River, and many don't survive the trip.
Tribal men and boys risk their lives each summer to gather the lamprey for their families. They capture the lamprey where they emerge from the water during their upriver migration.
The lamprey hunters wait for chokecherries to ripen and a type of winged ant, which tribal members call the "eel ant," to emerge.
Jackson said those signals, which take place in early July, indicate when the lamprey move upriver.
A favorite capture site had been Celilo Falls, which was drowned by The Dalles Dam. Elders say the fish were collected there by the hundreds.
Now tribal members struggle in the raging waters of Willamette Falls near Oregon City to collect the fish in their last Northwest stronghold. There, men scale the slippery rocks of the falls to pluck the climbing lamprey from the cold stones.
It wasn't always so.
Lamprey used to return to waterways just minutes away from the tribal longhouse in Mission. Now, elders say, those that return can be counted with the fingers of two hands.
In the 1960s and '70s, Jackson said the lamprey and other noncommercial fish species were poisoned, because it was thought the practice would provide better habitat for salmon.
"They wanted to get rid of the trash fish," Jackson said. "They did that two times, and basically they wiped out the entire population of lamprey."
Lamprey are similar to prehistoric sturgeon in that they are little changed. In the last 400 million years, lampreys haven't evolved much.
But like salmon, small lamprey migrate to the ocean to spend about two to three years at sea, then return to the rivers to dig nests called redds, spawn and die.
Young lamprey are blind and toothless. When they are 3 years old, they are no bigger than tiny earthworms. They spend most of their time in the silt of the stream bottom, poking out their heads during the night to feed by filtering small specks of plant material from the water.
"Tribal members know them as the cleaners of the river," Jackson said.
After about four to six years in fresh water, the fish migrate to the ocean, then find a host. Not much is known about lamprey during their time at sea, Jackson said.
But scientists do know that lamprey feed off their host's blood and go wherever their host goes. Lamprey have been found suctioned onto salmon, steelhead and even sperm whales.
Lamprey leave their host during spring to head back up the Columbia. They don't return to the stream where they hatched, but follow the scent of juvenile lamprey to find a suitable spawning place.
During summer, they often scale vertical surfaces like waterfalls during the dark of night. But once the water turns cold, lamprey lay and wait, living off their fat until the following spring to spawn.
Males dig the nest by muscling river rocks with their mouths and tails, then emit a pheromone to lure a female in. Often the males will flip and roll down the river when fighting for a female.
Once a male finds a female, the pair perform a "tangle dance," squeezing each other and depositing their sticky eggs and milt in the fine river gravel together. An adult lamprey will dig multiple nests and cover them before dying.
Lamprey traditionally were captured and dried in the Mid-Columbia's hot, dry July winds, Jackson said.
Their oil was used to cure earaches and for a hair tonic. Minthorn said he has even seen the chewy meat used as a baby pacifier. "They could eat it all day long," he said of babies.
The fish has an oily, chewy consistency. Minthorn compared the taste to fried pork.
Jackson said lamprey are something many tribal members have grown up eating and love.
"It's like Pepsi to anyone else. It's always been around," he said.
But the habit may begin to die out.
Knowledge about how to harvest, dry and prepare lamprey is in jeopardy, Minthorn said. Few women remember how to cut a lamprey so it will dry quickly, and only a handful of men and boys from Mission go to harvest lamprey each year, he said.
Now many people freeze, dehydrate or can lamprey instead of drying them.
"We don't know a lot now," he said. "We have classes now on how to cut fish, and it's becoming a lost art."
However, some are trying to keep those traditions alive.
John Barkley took his son Joshua, 9, on his first lamprey harvest this summer.
Six men crowded in a tiny boat before dawn and headed for the Willamette Falls.
"I wanted him to get that experience -- that experience that our ancestors have done a long while," Barkley said.
When the craft reached the largest falls in the Northwest, Barkley said he lifted his son up onto the rocks.
Joshua plucked a lamprey, but didn't hold onto it for long. "He was afraid that they were going to bite him," Barkley said, laughing.
When a Native American boy catches his first fish or kills his first deer or elk, it's a coming of age event. The accomplishment is celebrated, and he is considered no longer a boy but a provider for the family.
Barkley proudly showed off a picture of Joshua's first salmon, caught this summer. Such learning experiences are irreplaceable, he said.
"He is going to take that and pass it on to his children," Barkley said.
Jackson said he hopes hard work for the species' recovery and more understanding of the lamprey will help its recovery in the Mid-Columbia. He wants his children, who are now quite young, to be able to harvest lamprey in the nearby streams and rivers.
"We need to pass this tradition on," Jackson said. "We need to educate our young people so they can take care of the lamprey, so they can take care of us."
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