If you’ve heard of lampreys, chances are you’ve heard something bad.
Like how these parasites are sucking the lifeblood from the Great Lakes’ trout and sturgeon populations. Or maybe you saw Blood Lake: Attack of the Killer Lampreys, the made-for-TV movie in which Shannon Doherty and Christopher Lloyd face the inexplicable emergence of “stronger, more aggressive” lampreys that thirst for human blood and somehow are able to fly.
The animal’s mouth, or sucker disc, with its row upon row of jagged teeth does lend itself to the horror film genre, but lampreys can also play the hero. When in their native habitat on the western coast of the United States and Canada, these bloodsuckers do important work engineering streambeds and providing a smorgasbord for nearly all.
Unfortunately, the waterways of Washington, California, Oregon, Idaho, and British Columbia have fewer and fewer Pacific lampreys these days—a direct result of dams, culverts, tide gates, and any number of other barriers constructed on formerly free-flowing rivers and streams. Pacific lampreys are what’s known as anadromous fish, which means they migrate from the ocean to breed in freshwater streams. So if you block the streams, eventually you wind up with no lampreys, and experts now estimate the species resides in roughly half the habitat it did prior to the 1970s.
Getting people to care about the fate of the lamprey can be a hard sell, but Damon Goodman, a fish biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is doing his best. Goodman has been traipsing up and down the continent’s edge for a decade and a half to determine which streams still host these sleek, shimmery, cobalt wonders. Goodman, with the help of his colleague Stewart Reid from Western Fishes, has searched more than 840 sites in California. For these biologists, most of the hate for the lamprey is just a matter of perspective.
“Lampreys have been historically villainized, right? And so people like to take pictures of the scariest parts of them,” Goodman says. “But if you look at a mirror and open your own mouth, it’s not a pretty place either.”
Point taken. In fact, we should take another look at the lamprey’s sucker-mouth full of blades.
“It’s actually quite extraordinary, but they can climb straight up waterfalls,” says Goodman. Sure sounds to me like a superhero thing to do. Pacific lampreys once used their grappling hook–like faces to haul themselves nearly 900 river miles inland, ascending to an elevation of around 7,000 feet, until they reached the mountains of Idaho. That’s right, these suckers migrated from the sea and across the entire state of Washington!
And once the lampreys arrive at their breeding grounds, the males use their suction discs to drag rocks around and build underwater “reds,” or nests. “They create almost like a fire ring and then they lay their eggs in the middle of that,” says Goodman. The ring of rocks buffers the nests from the flow of rushing water, which allows the lampreys to rest while they court and mate, and it protects the eggs once they settle on the creek’s bottom.
All of this rock-moving isn’t just good for lampreys. It also creates different types of habitat—or as Goodman calls them, bathymetric complexities—that aquatic insects flock to. Those insects are great food for fish. And after the lampreys spawn and die, their carcasses provide nutrients to everything from bald eagles and osprey to seals, sea lions, otters, and bears.
“Basically everybody wants to eat a lamprey when they can,” says Goodman. And that includes people.
Native communities in the Pacific Northwest, such as the Umatilla, Cayuse, and Walla Walla tribes, have treasured their annual Pacific lamprey harvests for as long as anyone can remember. The animals are traditionally barbecued or smoked, which cuts down on some of the fish’s inherent oiliness. Pound for pound, Goodman says, the svelte swimmers pack more protein than salmon. They also tend to migrate in the winter months, so they show up at different times from salmon—another reason why lampreys have remained a vital food source for native peoples. They’re even considered a “first food,”—a specialty served at weddings, funerals, and other ceremonial dinners.
OK, now that we are all onboard with loving the Pacific lamprey, how do we save it? According to Goodman, it may be easier than we think. We just need a whole lot of PVC pipes.
As with waterfalls, lampreys are really, really good at climbing through PVC piping. A study Goodman and Reid published last year in the journal Ecological Engineering shows that just a few hundred feet of four-inch-diameter PVC is enough to turn an inaccessible barrier into a lamprey highway.