By Marcy Stamper
Pacific lamprey are hardy creatures — they have been found in fossil records more than 400 million years old — but in recent years their numbers in the Methow River watershed have dropped by 90 percent.
Hoping the fish will spawn here in the spring and begin to reestablish the population, biologists with Yakama Nation Fisheries released 75 adult lamprey in the Methow River near Winthrop on Wednesday (Sept. 23).
Ralph Lampman, a Pacific lamprey project biologist with Yakama Nation Fisheries, said this release is a stop-gap measure to prevent lamprey from becoming extirpated in the Methow River watershed. They released another group in the lower Methow River the week before.
Lampman and his colleagues collected the wild fish at several lower Columbia River dams earlier this summer, and all the fish have been tagged so scientists can track their movements. Biologists expect some may travel to the Twisp or Chewuch rivers, and will base future releases on where the fish travel, said Lampman.
“I really like salmon — but I love lamprey,” said Lampman. In fact, Lampman is such an enthusiast of the slithery fish that he has written a rap song about them, which he performed for the 50 adults and children who came to help with the release last week.
Lampman composed the rap in graduate school, when he was working on a research project on lamprey at a dam. After the dam was dewatered, Lampman would find thousands of dead lamprey in the dried-out sediment. He felt so helpless that he went home one night and wrote the lyrics.
Many of the children at the lamprey release were eager to help collect water in buckets to transport the lamprey down to the river, but transferring them from two large vessels into the buckets — which required dexterity to nab the serpentlike fish — was not for everyone. Some kids relished the chance to reach a gloved hand into the water, but others recoiled as the lamprey wriggled around.
John Crandall, monitoring coordinator with the Methow Restoration Council, has been tracking and counting lamprey juveniles at numerous sites in the Methow River watershed since 2008. While there were hundreds of juveniles when he started keeping track, there are now some sites with no larvae at all, he told the group.
Crandall said many factors have contributed to the lamprey’s precipitous decline. Their habitat has been decreased by residential and agricultural development. Lamprey also have a hard time getting through the fish ladders at the nine dams on the Columbia. While 90 to 95 percent of salmon typically make it over the ladders, only half of the lamprey do, said Lampman.
Blind, then parasitic
Lamprey have an unusual life cycle. The juveniles, which are blind, spend five to eight years in the sand and silt of freshwater rivers near where they are born, where they filter out microscopic particles for food, cleaning the water at the same time. They function sort of like earthworms in the river, said Crandall.
The fish then develop eyesight and migrate to the ocean, where they spend two years before returning to fresh water to spawn. In the ocean phase of their life, lamprey are parasitic, latching onto salmon, halibut, cod and killer whales with their mouths to suck blood and proteins. While the lamprey do some harm to the other fish, they don’t kill them, said Crandall.
With all the attention and resources directed toward salmon recovery, lamprey can seem overlooked. While native residents in the Columbia Basin ate them, European settlers saw lamprey as parasites, not as food. “They suck blood — that doesn’t necessarily translate to a warm, fuzzy feeling,” said Crandall.
Lamprey are among the oldest-living vertebrates on earth, said Crandall. “They were probably sucking on the legs of brontosaurus,” he said. “They’re really amazing fish. They’re very strange — they look like eels, but aren’t.”
Lamprey survived numerous mass extinctions and catastrophic changes, including ice ages, volcanic eruptions and meteorites. But accelerated human development in the past 150 years poses a unique threat to the fish, said Lampman.
While there were half-a-million lamprey in the Columbia River in the last century, populations crashed about 50 years ago and now there are only 10,000 to 30,000, said Crandall. There are probably not enough adults returning to replenish the local population, he said.
The Yakama biologists hope the lamprey releases will start rebuilding the population in the Methow watershed. While lamprey do not necessarily return to the same stream to spawn, the adults can smell chemicals released by the larvae, which scientists believe will encourage them to spawn in the vicinity.
The lamprey released over the last few weeks will find a protected place to overwinter and will spawn next June or July.