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Published: Tuesday, August 14, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

Tribes, biologists work to halt slide of lampreys

For generations, Northwest tribes have relied on the fish for food, medicine

  • As long as Indians have lived in the Northwest, they have looked to lamprey for food. But in the decades since dozens of hydroelectric dams have harne...

    Rick Bowmer / Associated Press

    As long as Indians have lived in the Northwest, they have looked to lamprey for food. But in the decades since dozens of hydroelectric dams have harnessed the power of the Columbia, Willamette and Snake rivers to make electricity, this jawless fish, popularly known as an eel, has steadily declined until Columbia Basin tribes have just a few places left to go for lamprey.

  • Tiny lamprey larvae, known as ammocoetes while in the larvae stage, swim in a glass tray. Biologist Mary Moser, with the National Oceanic and Atmosphe...

    Dan Bates / The Herald

    Tiny lamprey larvae, known as ammocoetes while in the larvae stage, swim in a glass tray. Biologist Mary Moser, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Adminsistration in Mukilteo, is working with tribes to increase the fish population. These ammocoetes are about a quarter-inch long.

  • Fisheries biologist Mary Moser studies a tiny ammocoetes at the NOAA labs in Mukilteo on Wednesday.

    Dan Bates / The Herald

    Fisheries biologist Mary Moser studies a tiny ammocoetes at the NOAA labs in Mukilteo on Wednesday.

  • A lamprey mouth is shown from Willamette Falls in Oregon City, Ore.

    Rick Bowmer / Associated Press

    A lamprey mouth is shown from Willamette Falls in Oregon City, Ore.

  • Lamprey caught by tribal harvesters are shown at Willamette Falls during the an annual Lamprey harvest Friday, July 13, 2012, along the Willamette Riv...

    Rick Bowmer / Associated Press

    Lamprey caught by tribal harvesters are shown at Willamette Falls during the an annual Lamprey harvest Friday, July 13, 2012, along the Willamette River, in Oregon City, Ore. As long as Indians have lived in the Northwest, they have looked to lamprey for food. This jawless fish popularly known as an eel has steadily declined until Columbia Basin tribes have just a few places left to go for lamprey.

  • Derek Muniz of the Umatilla Tribe Fisheries releases a tiny ammocoetes (lamprey in the larvae stage) into a glass tray at the NOAA research labs in Mu...

    Dan Bates / The Herald

    Derek Muniz of the Umatilla Tribe Fisheries releases a tiny ammocoetes (lamprey in the larvae stage) into a glass tray at the NOAA research labs in Mukilteo, Wednesday. Photo Taken: 080912

  • Fisheries biologist, Mary Moser places tiny ammocoetes beneath a microscope in a glass tray at the NOAA labs in Mukilteo Wednesday.

    Dan Bates / The Herald

    Fisheries biologist, Mary Moser places tiny ammocoetes beneath a microscope in a glass tray at the NOAA labs in Mukilteo Wednesday.

  • A tiny lamprey larvae, known as ammocoetes while in the larvae stage, swims in a glass tray. The ammocoetes is only about a quarter-inch long.

    Dan Bates / The Herald

    A tiny lamprey larvae, known as ammocoetes while in the larvae stage, swims in a glass tray. The ammocoetes is only about a quarter-inch long.

  • The mouth of a adult Pacific lamprey looks like a swimming suction cup, with rows of hooked teeth ready to feed on fish.

    Leo J. Shaw / Associated Press

    The mouth of a adult Pacific lamprey looks like a swimming suction cup, with rows of hooked teeth ready to feed on fish.

MUKILTEO -- If there were beauty contests for sea life, they likely would not be won by Pacific lampreys.
Lampreys, a type of parasitic eel, have a big, toothy suction cup for a mouth that sucks blood and bodily fluids from fish and whales. They're long, slick and snake-like.
If they look prehistoric, it's because they are. They've been around for 450 million years, since before the dinosaurs.
And yet there's big effort under way to help them survive.
The Pacific blue lamprey is in decline in the Columbia River system, where the species has been harvested for food, ceremonial and medicinal purposes by Indian tribes for centuries.
Now, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is working with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation near Pendleton, Ore., to study ways to increase the lamprey's numbers, and they're doing it in Mukilteo.
About 5,000 eggs were taken from female lampreys earlier this year. The larvae are growing in tubs of fresh water in varying conditions, such as with mud, sand or nothing added, to determine the environment in which they can best thrive.
Staff at the NOAA center in Mukilteo, housed in former Air Force buildings on the waterfront, do most of their research on how contaminants affect saltwater fish. The lamprey project is the first of its kind at the lab, said Mary Moser, a research biologist with NOAA fisheries who is working on the project with the tribes.
"You can't create environments like this in the wild," she said.
The translucent larvae are about two months old and a centimeter long, said Jerrid Weaskus, lamprey technician for the Umatilla tribes. When they're fully grown, each lamprey will be about 2 to 3 feet long, a few inches around and weigh about a pound.
Moser and tribal researchers worked last week to count and measure the larvae, or ammocoetes, as they're called.
"It's a very tedious process," Moser said.
The wiggly ammocoetes are extracted from the tubs with a basting tube and put in petri dishes where the water is diluted with an anesthetic to slow them down so they can be measured.
Once the best environment is determined, it's hoped they can be planted in Columbia tributaries, both for harvest and research, tribal members said.
Lamprey are like salmon in that they hatch in streams, migrate to the sea and return to spawn. But they have longer life cycles. While salmon head for saltwater within a year and return within five years, lamprey linger in fresh water for two to three years, head to sea for three to five years, and can live up to 10 years, Moser said.
Lamprey larvae burrow into sediments and filter feed, which helps clean the water but makes them more susceptible to the effects of pollution, according to NOAA.
As recently as 2002, up to 200,000 lamprey were counted returning from the sea at Bonneville on the Columbia, said Aaron Jackson, lamprey project leader for the Umatilla tribes.
For the five years leading up to this year, fewer than 50,000 lamprey were counted, he said. The dams along the Columbia weed out about half of the lamprey that return, preventing them from spawning, according to Jackson. Some fish ladders have recently been built for lampreys to combat the problem. Other factors, such as habitat loss, might be contributing to the decline as well, officials said.
And, not unexpectedly, some of the growing eels are eaten by sturgeon and herons.
Lampreys use their sucker-like mouths to attach to rocks under the water, Weaskus said. The Umatilla tribes harvest them by pulling them off rocks at Willamette Falls when the water recedes in July.
When harvesters arrive, the lampreys in the water try to swim away, but other tribal members are there waiting for them with nets.
The tribes keep their harvests down to avoid depleting the species, Weaskus said. This year they took about 600, he said.
The eels are filleted and cooked over an open flame or smoked.
"It's an acquired taste," Weaskus said. "It's pretty oily."
Lampreys live in Puget Sound as well as local rivers, but don't seem to be prominent in the diet of coastal tribes, Moser said. The status of lampreys in the Sound hasn't been extensively studied, she said.
On the Columbia, it's hoped that lamprey planted in tributaries can help researchers determine exactly how many are stopped by the dams and what other factors might be in play, Jackson said.
He said the tribes have received a grant of up to $100,000 for the project from the federal Bonneville Power Administration, which operates the dams on the Columbia.
Of course, it's also hoped the project can increase the lampreys' numbers for harvest.
"Our plan is to think seven generations ahead," Weaskus said. "That's what this is all about."
Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439; sheets@heraldnet.com.







Story tags » MukilteoPollutionNatural resourcesWildlife HabitatIndian Tribes

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