Pacific lamprey were once a major staple in Northwest tribes’ diets. The oils were a source of nutrition. Babies used lamprey tails as teething rings.
Now, as numbers decline, lamprey only make it to the table during ceremonies or special occasions. Washington biologists hope to turn those numbers around and in doing so, may create the world's first lamprey hatchery.
Emily Washines, a member of the Yakama Nation in central Washington, stands on the banks of Upper Toppenish Creek. The waters once teemed with Pacific lamprey. “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,” Wahsines said.
Much is known about salmon. Much less is known about Pacific lamprey. That’s why the tribes — including the Yakama Nation — are working to restore lamprey before it is put on the federal government’s list of fish and wildlife protected under the Endangered Species Act.
“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,” she said.
One possible parallel to salmon run restoration: building the world’s first lamprey hatcheries.
A small lab operates in a southwest Washington garage that’s been converted to an experimental station for Pacific lamprey.
Four rows of sea-foam green tanks line the lab. 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.
“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,” said Matt Mesa, a fishery biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey.
Mesa has worked on several lamprey studies for the USGS. One current puzzle: How to keep lamprey from being sucked into fish screens. These screens are designed to keep salmon and bull trout out of farmers’ irrigation pipes, but juvenile lamprey often slip through.
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Mesa’s most recent project is figuring out how to build and sustain a lamprey hatchery, a problem researchers around the region are working on — at the Yakama Nation and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation, NOAA fisheries, the Fish and Wildlife Service.
At this lab, Mesa and his colleagues are spawning and rearing the young lamprey. Lisa Weiland carefully measures food for the lamprey.
“A small starter feed – it’s a finely ground fish food. And then we add to that, yeast,” Weiland said.
At this stage in their lives, lamprey eat by filtering nutrients out of water.
She mixes the two together with a handheld blender and then 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 Finns have.
“My personal opinion is the smaller size you release them, the higher mortality it’s going to be,” Mesa said.
That means raising the lamprey in hatcheries for at least two years.
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Mesa would also like to mark or tag the lamprey he releases, so that researchers can track their progress. But lamprey don’t have fins to clip like hatchery-raised salmon. They also have to be much larger than the fingernail-sized juveniles now in the lab to be fitted with a pit tag, a technology that Mesa has developed.
Right now, researchers have noticed in the lab a lot of lamprey die within the first few months of life.
“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,” he said.
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 southeast of Portland to catch a few lamprey as they swim and climb up Willamette Falls.
“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,” Mesa said.
This story was originally published at 1:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 18.