SEATTLE — They are older than dinosaurs, older than salmon. Around for an astounding 450 million years, Pacific lamprey have been feeding the native people and landscape of the Northwest for millennia.
And come summer, as the heat builds, tribal members from all around the Columbia Basin travel for hours and hundreds of miles to fish for lamprey, in one of the few places where the ancient fish are still abundant: Oregon’s Willamette Falls.
“It’s kind of its own unique taste, you either like it or you don’t,” said fisherman Bobby Begay of the Yakama Indian Nation, who likes to barbecue what lamprey he doesn’t gift to elders.
“To us, they are sacred food. We use them for funerals, memorials and honor dinners, our special times. In our way, we say they have a history in them,” he said of the fish. “They serve a purpose, and they are part of the balance of life.”
As Begay fishes, using cotton gloves to pull the eels from a pool at the falls, he remembers the stories his grandfather used to tell, about how Eel lost his bones in a bet with Sucker. The 365 bones in a sucker fish — one for every day of the year — each came with its own story, Begay remembers.
He passes those stories, and the lamprey fishing tradition, on to his own little ones each summer, heading to the falls for a slippery harvest.
Wind dried, eel makes a nutritious snack, three times higher in healthy fats than salmon. Roasted, it sizzles with fat — for lamprey is an animal that has always fed not only the people but the land.
Like salmon, they return from the ocean, bringing a harvest of nutrients from the sea to the streams where they spawn.
Both the male and the female carry rocks in their mouths to build the nest for their young. When it’s ready, the male wraps himself around the female to squeeze her eggs from her, fertilizes them, and the two then die.
“Salmon get all the credit,” said Sara Thompson of the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission, which is working with Columbia River tribes to restore lamprey to abundance. “But the ecosystem of the Pacific Northwest was built on the backs of these guys.”
Once blackening the river in untold numbers, today the eels can be counted on the fingers of two hands at some of the inland dams in the Columbia River and Lower Snake River, which block their passage to spawning grounds. Dams, and even poisoning by fisheries officials who from the 1940s to the 1980s worked to rid streams of so-called “rough fish,” have put lamprey at risk of extinction in many streams.
The lowest lamprey runs on record were counted at Columbia and Snake river dams in 2010 and 2011, said Brian McIlraith, Pacific lamprey project leader at the fish commission.
Today lamprey populations are in such severe decline, tribal members gather eels at Bonneville Dam and truck them hundreds of miles to their home waters above and beyond the dams, to help the fish survive and spawn a new generation.
Tribes also have launched a $50 million restoration effort with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to improve passage for eels at the dams. And at the Mukilteo Research Station, NOAA biologist Mary Moser is working on a project with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation to develop techniques to raise lamprey in a hatchery environment.
Moser said she is rooting for an ancient animal that has been maligned and misunderstood. Snakelike, moving mostly at night, sucking the blood and body fluids of other fish to which they attach when they live in the ocean, lamprey get bad press, she noted.
But they are native animals to the region, and do not kill their host. And during the long freshwater phase of their lives, they provide a rich food source for other animals.
Tough survivors, lamprey are even more athletic than salmon: They can get themselves up a 20-foot vertical rock wall, using their sucker mouth to inch up and along.
As he fished in the pool at the falls, Begay said it was a good day, laughing with family and friends, and harvesting a food he knew was eagerly anticipated back home.
“Our elders who grew up on it, they crave it, they wish for it,” he said of his lamprey catch. “We are fishing for them, so they will have enough eels for the winter.
“We will make a lot of people happy tonight.”