Tuesday, December 6, 2022
Dec. 6, 2022

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How Northwest tribes are leading the push to restore eel-like lampreys

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DAVE’Y LUMLEY IS up to her armpits in water at Willamette Falls. Cascades spill over the basalt columns that loom above, splashing onto her head and off the brim of her baseball cap. She takes a breath and goes under, emerging seconds later with an eel-like creature twisting in her hand.

Lumley flings the fish into a net held by a fellow member of the Yakama Nation. “There’s still a lot of them down there,” she says, wiping her face.

The net writhes with dozens of silvery brown Pacific lampreys — a species few Northwesterners ever see, but which once flourished in coastal streams and migrated by the millions through the Columbia and Snake river systems. Pictures from the early 1900s show Willamette Falls draped with so many of the animals — attached to rocks by their sucker mouths — that the entire structure seems alive.

For millennia, tribes across Washington, Oregon and Idaho feasted on the odd-looking fish as they returned to fresh water every spring and summer to spawn. Among the oldest creatures on Earth, lampreys are integral to tribal culture as a “first food” and a vital part of nature’s web. But a single century of dam-building, development and habitat degradation decimated their numbers and blocked off much of their historic range.

The only remaining spot where Pacific lamprey can be reliably harvested is this horseshoe-shaped falls at Oregon City, south of Portland. There are no dams between here and the ocean, but even so, the number of lampreys passing through has dropped precipitously. Harvests that peaked at more than half a million in the 1940s, when lamprey were sold for bait, now number a few thousand, split between multiple tribes.

Tribal elders started sounding the alarm 50 years ago, as they noticed fewer and fewer of the fish. The late Elmer Crow Jr., of the Nez Perce Tribe, spoke eloquently of following a single “eel” — a common tribal nickname for lamprey — half a mile upriver in 1972.

“I wondered why the Creator showed me that one lone eel,” he recalls in the documentary film “The Lost Fish.” “I always wondered: Did I see the last one in the South Fork of the Salmon River?”

Crow’s unflagging advocacy for lampreys earned him a nickname of his own: Eel-mer. In discussions with state and federal agencies, he insisted the fish be considered in every project. “His catch phrase was: ‘No eels. No deals,’ ” says his son, Jeremy FiveCrows.

STILL, IT TOOK DECADES — and a petition from conservation groups to list multiple species of West Coast lampreys under the Endangered Species Act — to get a critical mass of nontribal organizations on board. For years, lampreys were deliberately poisoned along with other so-called trash fish. The species’ unlovable image didn’t help.

There’s an “ick” factor with Pacific lampreys because they’re parasitic in the ocean, sucking blood from other fish. They’re also confused with sea lamprey, an invasive species wreaking havoc in the Great Lakes. Photos that zoom in on gaping mouths ringed with sharp teeth make them look more like monsters than animals that are as much a part of Northwest ecosystems as salmon and sea gulls.

But Pacific lampreys are finally getting some official love — and money. The Pacific Lamprey Conservation Initiative was launched in 2008 after the endangered species petition was rejected due largely to lack of information. The coalition of more than 30 tribes, agencies and organizations is beginning to fill in data gaps with regular assessments and research. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates major Columbia and Snake river dams, has spent or committed $70 million to help lamprey navigate the massive edifices.

None of it would have happened without the tribes — particularly the Yakama, Nez Perce, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs — and they continue to lead the way.

Tribal transplantation programs launched 20 years ago as emergency life support are beginning to boost populations across all life stages. Tribes also have pioneered lamprey hatcheries as a possible way to prop up wild populations.

Funding remains paltry compared to the billions spent on salmon, and there’s a lot to be learned — including how climate change will complicate the picture, says U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Christina Wang, who chairs the lamprey initiative’s technical work group. “Just getting lampreys on people’s radar was the first step. Now I think we’re going to start making quicker progress.”

LAMPREY FISHING IS mostly by feel, Lumley explains over the roar of the falls. The fish sucker their way up the rocks, latching on and wiggling their bodies to propel themselves forward by tiny increments. They prefer to move by night and rest by day in nooks and crevices — which is where Lumley and her fellow foragers are finding them on this scorching Saturday in late July.

At close range, lampreys look as primordial as they are. Dating back nearly 450 million years, they are older than dinosaurs, trees and mammals — and remarkably unchanged across the eons. They have big blue eyes but no scales, no jaws and no paired fins. Like sharks, they make do with cartilage instead of bones.

Two groups of tribal members are scouring the rocks today: Veterans like Lumley, and a trio of young people on their first outing. Together, they fill several gunny sacks with fish — most of which will be cooked and served the following day at a public lamprey celebration hosted by the tribe. The rest will be distributed to tribal members for ceremonies, funerals and feasts.

ON SUNDAY, MORE than 100 people gather at Meldrum Bar Park on the Willamette River. As elders speak about the fish’s significance to the tribes, Lumley — who’s a biologist for the Yakamas’ lamprey restoration program — answers questions in an educational booth. A popular topic is the lamprey life cycle, which puts salmon to shame in its complexity. Larvae are so different from adults that scientists once believed they were separate species.

Recent genetic studies found the larvae can spend up to 12 years living in freshwater sediments, growing from microscopic wisps to about the size of a pencil, Lumley explains. They’re sightless and feed by filtering tiny organisms and organic matter from the water.

As the time approaches to migrate to sea, the larvae morph into juveniles, adapting to saltwater and growing eyes and sucker mouths. They spend up to seven years in the marine environment feeding off host fish. By the time they return to fresh water, they’ve grown into 1- to 3-foot-long cylinders of muscle and fat.

Rendering out that fat is key to lamprey cooking, says Evans Lewis, who’s tending a trailer-size charcoal grill. It’s crammed with salmon, chunks of lamprey and hot dogs, which he soon will dish up for the crowd.

Some diners describe the taste of lamprey as pungently fishy, while others call it meaty. Historically, lampreys were a source of nutrition not only for the region’s Native people, but also for other animals and for riparian landscapes enriched by their corpses after spawning.

“Even when they’re small, they have these really, really high fat levels that make them a killer snack,” says Laurie Weitkamp, a biologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “Salmon are like celery, but lamprey are like cheeseburgers.”

The disappearance of all those cheeseburgers means seals, sea lions, seabirds, sturgeon and other fish are forced to find new sources of food. Often it’s adult or juvenile salmon, which brings them into conflict with humans. “When you have a healthy population of lamprey, they basically run interference for salmon,” says Rebecca Mahan, a habitat biologist for Clallam County who formerly worked on lamprey protection and restoration for the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe.

Weitkamp is focused on the black box of the lampreys’ life at sea. She’s found they can prey on a wide range of species but seem to prefer hake, an abundant West Coast native used for imitation crab. Healed wounds aren’t uncommon among multiple types of fish captured in surveys, suggesting it’s possible to survive being parasitized. Weitkamp suspects most victims die, though, either from blood loss or infections where lampreys burrow in.

One of the biggest mysteries is how widely Pacific lampreys range. Almost all animals netted in coastal surveys are in their first summer at sea or returning to spawn. But where do they hang out in between?

A tantalizing clue comes from the Russian side of the Bering Sea, Weitkamp says. A biologist tagged several lamprey there — and at least one later turned up at Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River.

TWO WEEKS AFTER her fishing expedition, Lumley is counting baby lampreys at the Yakama Nation’s lamprey facility in Prosser. The tribe started experimenting with captive propagation a decade ago, artificially spawning adults captured at Bonneville and other dams.

At first, nearly all the hatchlings died, says project leader Ralph Lampman. But survival soared after he and his team started feeding them a mix of yeast and flour.

Lumley siphons eyelash-size larvae hatched two months ago out of rearing containers and into a small Plexiglass box called a photarium, where they can be evaluated and measured. Older larvae live in troughs filled with black sediment. Lampman grabs a handful of muck to reveal squirming 4-year-olds about the size of night crawlers.

Lamprey hatcheries are still so new, it’s not clear what role they will play in recovery, he explains. One idea is to raise animals for experimentation and research, sparing wild fish. But it might also be possible to use hatchery-reared lamprey to supplement natural populations. Lampman and his crew released larvae into the wild for the first time last year and are monitoring them closely.

Results are already in from transplantation programs where biologists collect adults at dams and release them into streams and tributaries across the Columbia and Snake River basins. At the Yakama Nation Prosser Hatchery, staff members today are preparing 300 fish for release in the Methow River. They measure and determine sex for each animal, clip a tiny snippet from its dorsal fin for genetic analysis and insert a tracking tag the size of a grain of rice.

When transplantation started in the early 2000s, the hope was that the transplants would produce new generations of sediment-dwelling larvae. That’s important because adult lamprey don’t return to the place they were born, like salmon. Instead, they are drawn to areas where previous generations have spawned by the presence of pheromones released by larvae. So re-establishing larval populations is necessary not only for ecosystem health but to entice adults back into areas where they were wiped out.

“Transplantation was kind of this interim Band-Aid,” says Jon Hess, a fisheries geneticist for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. “The primary goal was just to increase abundance of larval lampreys for some interim period before habitat and passage could be improved.”

Hess and his colleagues found it’s working. Using new methods to genetically fingerprint transplanted adults, they were able to identify their offspring and prove the programs boosted larval abundance across wide areas. In some years, translocated lamprey produced offspring at higher rates than naturally migrating fish.

Because of lampreys’ wandering nature, it was always a longshot that transplantation would lead to more adults returning to the basins where their parents were released — but in 2020, a lamprey trapped at Bonneville Dam proved to be the progeny of a pair transplanted to the Snake River basin by the Nez Perce Tribe 13 years before. The next year, more than 1,000 transplant offspring turned up at the dam.

“It was pretty mind-blowing to see that,” Hess says.

The Yakamas’ results have been similarly encouraging, with multiple generations of larvae now flourishing in the wild, adults just beginning to return the Columbia system and more expected in the next few years, Lampman says.

THE BIGGEST OBSTACLE Pacific lampreys face is that gantlet of dams, none of them designed with ancient suckerfish in mind. Washington’s free-flowing Chehalis River has one of the state’s healthiest lamprey populations, and the fish rebounded quickly when dams were removed from the Elwha and White Salmon rivers.

Many adult lampreys make it through fish ladders designed for salmon, but at each of the eight dams girdling the lower Columbia and Snake rivers, their ranks are reduced by roughly 30% to 50%. In 2009, only about two dozen adults made it past the eighth dam, Lower Granite.

Lamprey can climb vertical walls, but they aren’t strong swimmers, so high-velocity fish ladders are tough for them to navigate. They get snagged on bypass screens, and can’t make 90-degree turns when climbing, so they also have a hard time getting past culverts.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began studying lampreys and dams in the 1990s, and — pushed and prodded by the tribes — has spent $50 million to identify problem areas and make fixes. It also built passage structures specifically for the species at three dams: Bonneville, John Day and McNary.

The lamprey ladder at Bonneville is an elaborate chute system with smooth surfaces lamprey can attach to, rounded corners, no gratings and places to rest. The improvements at John Day boosted lamprey passage from less than 50% to more than 70%, says USACOE biologist Sean Tackley. But it’s not clear yet that the modifications have boosted overall lamprey passage in the mainstem rivers, he adds.

When funding ran out, tribes pressed for more and got an additional $20 million. Among other things, the money will be used to study downstream passage of juvenile lampreys. Thanks to minuscule batteries and tags developed by scientists at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, biologists have just started to track movements of young fish with the goal of identifying major bottlenecks.

Some of the steps to protect lamprey can be quite modest, Lampman says at the site of a low-slung irrigation dam over the Yakima River at Sunnyside. Managers used to dredge sediment and dump it on the banks, unaware they were killing larval lampreys hidden in the mud. Now, they plop the sediment back in an out-of-the-way spot in the river.

This dam and others in the area also were recently equipped with simple lamprey ladders, Lampman says, pointing out a vertical chute with a film of water flowing down its face. “Even really fat females who are ready to spawn can climb up over this,” he says. When they reach the top, they’re guided into elevated PVC pipe for the short trip to the other side.

Lampman is part of a new generation of fisheries biologists for whom lampreys are the primary focus, not a side gig. Twenty years ago, there might have been two or three lamprey presentations at the profession’s biggest U.S. conference, recalls Wang, of the Pacific Lamprey Conservation Initiative. This year, the American Fisheries Society meeting devoted an entire day to Entosphenus tridentatus.

When the lamprey initiative hosts its next summit in December, several new organizations are expected to sign on, broadening support for restoration. The tribes likely will be pushing for more money as well as concrete abundance targets to work toward, Lampman says.

The progress so far is encouraging, but there’s still a long way to go until lamprey populations are self-sustaining across their historic range, he says.

“My job won’t be done until we can harvest lamprey in the Yakima River again.”

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