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Environment | Flora and Fauna

How Pacific Lamprey Could Help Nourish Streams

OREGON CITY, Ore. – Water pours off the top of Willamette Falls. Rod Begay reaches his hand inside the falls and plucks a 1.5-foot eel out of the water.

He tosses the Pacific lamprey into a soaking wet burlap sack. A dozen other eels squirm inside. Begay clings to the side of the falls, dripping from head to toe in his wetsuit. He and other member of the Yakama Nation will take the lamprey back to tribal elders. Begay estimates the tribal fishing team caught 500 of the toothy eels this morning.

View Pacific lamrey in a larger map

Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission staffers take notes on the catches. Brian McIlraith studies Pacific lamprey for CRITFC. He’s one of a few non-tribal members who have a license to help harvest lamprey, although he jokingly says on this day he’s dropped more than he’s caught.

“When you’re harvesting lamprey they are in the watery cracks and crevasses, and they kind of get formed in these watery pockets. You just have to go in there and grab them. Some of them are climbing up the rocks. Some of them are deep down underneath the water,” McIlraith says.

Watch: Harvesting lamprey

The Pacific lamprey making their way up Willamette Falls are the last harvestable population in the Northwest. That’s why Begay and other tribe fishers drove three hours for this catch. Pacific lamprey numbers have dropped dramatically in the past 25 years. No one is really sure exactly what happened, McIlraith says.

If these lamprey kept traveling upriver, they would overwinter in tributaries. Once springtime rolled around, they would build a rocky bed, where would they lay their eggs and die.

lamprey mouth
A Pacific lamprey caught
at Willamette Falls.

Relatively little is known about Pacific lamprey. That’s why it’s taking more field work to understand how lamprey impact rivers and streams.

In central Washington, Eva Carl pulls on her hip-length waders and steps into the middle of Upper Toppenish Creek. She’s trying to figure out how lamprey bodies might act as fertilizer for streams.

It’s a hot and sunny day in Toppenish, Wash. The creek provides a little relief. Minnows scurry around Carl’s feet as she makes her way upriver.

Earlier in the season Carl placed netted bags filled with spawned-out lamprey in this creek, a place where lamprey might typically spawn and die.

Carl, a Yakama Nation tribal member and student researcher, has been monitoring the stream flow and taking water quality samples near the bags every three days.

She opens one of the bags weighted with stones and picks up a lamprey carcass.

“It’s just the head left,” she says and flips the carcass over in her hand. “We had a flow tag to identify which fish.”

Watch: Lamprey And Stream Health

Over the weeks, the rotten lamprey smell has attracted a few predators to the creekbed. The 1.5-inch thick carcasses now look like shoelaces sitting at the bottom of the creek.

Carl says all summer long these lamprey have been drawing interest from large mammals like bears, as well as providing food for small insects, which she refers to as macro-invertebrates.

Carl says that helps keep creeks healthy.

“Without our macro-invertebrates in our streams, it will cause more algae growth,” she says.

A macroinvertebrate under the microscope.

Many studies like this have been conducted with salmon. The STEP program at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife places salmon carcasses into streams throughout the state.

“It’s essential to the river ecology. The salmons’ bodies are rich in proteins, in fats,” said Karen Hans, one of the program’s biologists in the Willamette Valley.

Hans said the same thing would be true for Pacific lamprey. They also store proteins and nutrients from the ocean that Hans said are so important to stream ecosystems.

While Oregon’s salmon study has been going on for years, this lamprey carcass study is thought to be the first of its kind in the Northwest.

Emily Washines works with Yakama Nation fisheries and is a member of the tribe. She says salmon and lamprey have been next to each other on ceremonial tables for as long as she can remember.

“Our elders say one cannot exist without the other,” Washines says. “They both need to benefit side-by-side. That’s 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.”

Washines’ tribe is going to continue monitoring the ecosystem the rest of this year. So far, researchers say, the creek’s health is improving. If that continues it will provide better habitat for the species that live there. Some day, the tribe hopes, that will include the Pacific lamprey.

Clarification: July 29, 2013. Pacific lamprey are not eels. They are commonly referred to as eels however, and this is reflected by the occasional use of the term in this article to refer to Pacific lamprey.

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