Pacific lamprey numbers are quickly declining throughout Northwestern waters. Tribal elders remember times when the Columbia River was black with the eel-like fish.
Now, Northwest researchers are trying to develop a lamprey hatchery – the first of its kind in the world. But, there are challenges ahead.
Pacific lampreys were once a major staple in Northwest tribes’ diets. The oils were a source of vitamins. Babies used lamprey tails as teething rings.
Now, as numbers decline, lamprey only make it to the table during ceremonies or special occasions.
Emily Washines is a member of the Yakama Nation in central Washington. She stands on the banks of Upper Toppenish Creek. The waters were once full with Pacific lamprey.
Washines: “One of my earliest memories was being at the ceremonial table and seeing the different foods put out in front. Salmon and lamprey were side-by-side.”
Much is known about salmon. Much less is known about Pacific lamprey. That’s why the tribes -- including the Yakama Nation – are working hard to restore lamprey before it is put on the endangered species list.
Washines: “One of the reasons that we’re so excited about the biological research going on now is because it’s trying to parallel what’s been going on with salmon for decades.”
One possible parallel to salmon work: lamprey hatcheries.
Four rows of sea-foam green tanks line a laboratory in southwestern Washington. Baby Pacific lampreys are burrowed beneath soft playground sand at the bottom of the tanks.
This is the start of experiments to build a lamprey hatchery in the Pacific Northwest.
Mesa: “Young lampreys, they look really similar to worms. They don’t have eyes, and they don’t really have the sucking mouth parts that we know from adult lampreys.”
Matt Mesa is a fishery biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. He’s worked on several lamprey studies for the USGS.
His most recent project: Figuring out how to build and sustain a lamprey hatchery. It’s a problem researchers around the region are working on.
At this lab, Mesa and his colleagues are spawning and rearing the young lamprey. Lisa Weiland prepares food for the lamprey. At this point in their lives, lamprey eat by filtering nutrients out of water.
Weiland: “A small starter feed – it’s a finely ground fish food. And then we add to that: yeast.”
She mixes the two together with a handheld blender. Then she dumps the food into each tank.
At salmon hatcheries researchers raise fish by the millions. Creating a lamprey hatchery that big is no easy task.
Researchers in Finland have spawned and released lamprey. Mesa hopes to raise the lamprey longer than the Fins have.
Mesa: “My personal opinion is the smaller size you release them, the higher mortality it’s going to be.”
That means raising the lamprey for at least two years.
Right now, researchers have noticed in the lab a lot of lamprey die within the first few months of life.
Mesa: “We don’t know if they’re not getting enough food. We don’t know if it’s just a natural part of the process – that a lot of these fish are going to die anyway. Or, what is it? We haven’t figured it out yet, and it’s a pretty daunting challenge.”
Mesa hopes, one day, there will be more than one place to catch Pacific lamprey in the Columbia River Basin.
Right now, tribal members travel to Oregon City outside of Portland to catch a few lamprey – as the fish swim and jump up Willamette Falls.
Mesa: “There’s a lot of effort to try to restore runs of lampreys, and hopefully bring numbers back, particularly in places like the Upper Columbia, Idaho. To get these fish back in numbers where the tribes can go to some of their historical places where they used to harvest these fish and get back to harvesting them.”
For now, Mesa is up for the challenge.
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