Learning to Love the Lamprey

In their native habitat in the Pacific Northwest, these imperiled fish are important ecosystem engineers and food web heroes—despite their bloodsucking lifestyle.

A brown lamprey swimming near the water's rocky floor

Jeremy Monroe/Freshwaters Illustrated

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.”

Credit: John Heil/USFWS

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.

Pacific lampreys struggling to climb around the Van Arsdale pool-and-weir fishway, challenged at each step with high water velocities and sharp angles.
Credit: Left photo credit: GoPro. Right photo credit: John Heil/USFWS

For instance, on the Eel River (so named because the European colonizers who made the maps mistook lampreys for eels), a 50-foot-tall dam was enough to foil the migrations of 94 percent of the lampreys that attempted to climb it. And for the 6 percent that successfully scaled the dam, the feat took around two weeks to complete. With the tubes in place, however, Goodman found that nearly every individual from his release group made the journey—and in just three hours.

“The first year we put it in, there was a huge run of lampreys, like the biggest run we’ve seen in a long time,” says Goodman. “We got like 11,000 going up over the dam through the tubes in the first year.”

Damon Goodman evaluating the performance of lampreys ascending Cape Horn Dam.
Credit: Steve Martarano/USFWS

That sounds like a lot of lampreys to count. Goodman does it by installing cameras inside some of the pipes. This allows him to not only count the fish but to take quick measurements of them. The structures are already enabling the species to recolonize waterways that they were excluded from for years, such as the San Luis Obispo Creek in Southern California. “Before it was lost, this was the southernmost stronghold of lampreys,” says Goodman. But sometime in the mid-2000s, the animals disappeared completely. After some passage tubes went up in 2013, the lampreys returned in just four years.

The success of the PVC passageways means that no time or money needs to be spent on captive breeding or reintroduction programs. There’s even good evidence that the lampreys are spawning and the young are surviving. With just a little bit of piping, these animals have become the action heroes in their own comeback story.

This article was originally published on onEarth, which is no longer in publication. onEarth was founded in 1979 as the Amicus Journal, an independent magazine of thought and opinion on the environment. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. This article is available for online republication by news media outlets or nonprofits under these conditions: The writer(s) must be credited with a byline; you must note prominently that the article was originally published by NRDC.org and link to the original; the article cannot be edited (beyond simple things such grammar); you can’t resell the article in any form or grant republishing rights to other outlets; you can’t republish our material wholesale or automatically—you need to select articles individually; you can’t republish the photos or graphics on our site without specific permission; you should drop us a note to let us know when you’ve used one of our articles.

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