To Bring Back a Native Fish

By Lee Anna Sherman

Pacific lamprey, Entosphenus tridentatus, after many years of flying under the radar, have just recently received increased attention and awareness. Three events are planned for February, “Lamprey Awareness Month,” as christened by Jeremy Monroe of Freshwaters Illustrated, to give one of the oldest vertebrates some due.

  • On February 10, the Corvallis Science Pub (Old World Deli, 341 2nd St.) will host Jeremy Monroe and Carl Schreck, senior fisheries scientist at Oregon State, as they discuss the issue of Pacific lamprey conservation.
  • Freshwaters Illustrated and the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission will screen their short film, “The Lost Fish,” at 7 pm on February 21, as part of the Corvallis Eco-Film Fest at Odd Fellows Hall (223 SW 2nd St).
  • The Oregon Chapter of the American Fisheries Society (AFS) will host its 50th annual meeting in Eugene, Oregon, from February 25-28. Oregon, having one of the largest and most active AFS chapters, will host an entire session on the latest scientific developments of lamprey.

To clarify, the anadromous Pacific lamprey are a species of lamprey that is native to the Pacific states and provinces of North America. Oregon and Northern California alone contain over 10 identified species of lamprey, most of which are not anadromous and therefore do not leave their native freshwater streams. Most of this blog post will focus on Pacific lamprey.

Elmer Crow, a Nez Perce elder, fisherman and traditional leader. (Photo by Dave Herasimtchuk, courtesy of Freshwaters Illustrated)
Elmer Crow, a Nez Perce elder, fisherman and traditional leader. (Photo by Dave Herasimtchuk, courtesy of Freshwaters Illustrated)

Elmer Crow, a Nez Perce elder, fisherman, and traditional leader, had a large role in “The Lost Fish.” On July 26, 2013, Elmer passed away while saving his two grandsons, who had been swept into the water by an errant wake on the Snake River. Elmer died just as he lived: heroic and selfless. He was a family man, who befriended everyone he interacted with. His passion for lamprey started in the 1970s, when he began to notice declining returns in the Salmon River Basin.

Elmer was a tireless lamprey advocate. Many will remember his presence in scientific meetings, forums and tribal councils, where he was not afraid to let his voice be heard. Even as Elmer has moved onto another world, his presence and achievements will continue, as he famously worked with “no budget” and was the first to implement supplementation and translocation projects in the fight to restore Pacific lamprey. For a deeper look into the continued success of Elmer’s work, see this story in The Observer newspaper from La Grande.

Pacific lamprey have important medicinal and cultural uses to Native American tribes of the region. They are central to the cultural identity of the tribes and seen as providers of life, as well as teachers. In the Pacific Northwest, lamprey were originally called ksuyus’ or asum’. You might also hear folks refer to them as eels, based on interactions with early English speakers. As the creation story goes, the lamprey was a boastful gambler, full of confidence. The lamprey was eager to prove his superiority over others and placed a bet with the Sucker Fish, waging his scales and bones that he would beat him in a swimming race. The lamprey ultimately lost and thus lost all of his scales and bones to the Sucker, who still holds them to this day, while the lamprey remains a slow swimmer, lacking true bones and scales.

Lamprey have long been overlooked in the United States, with much of the focus on the invasive sea lamprey in the Great Lakes region. Oregon State University has played a large role in the field of lamprey conservation. Carl Bond, the founder of the OSU Ichthyology Collection, and Ph.D. student Tin Tien Kan, described the world’s smallest predatory lamprey, Miller Lake lamprey, Entosphenus minima, in 1973 using museum specimens, because the lamprey was presumed extinct from lake poisoning by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife in 1958. Doug Markle, Bond’s successor, along with Dan Logan and Dave Simon, rediscovered Miller Lake lamprey in 1992, and with Chris Lorion, they described its expanded range outside Miller Lake. Roger Smith, an OSU graduate, wrote a Miller Lake lamprey conservation plan for ODFW in 2005 and successfully reintroduced them into Miller Lake in 2010. In 2004, Doug’s graduate student, Abel Brumo evaluated different methods for quantifying Pacific Lamprey spawning in the Coquille River in southwestern Oregon.

In the early 1990s, OSU scientists Hiram and Judy Li were the first to acknowledge the decline of Pacific lamprey, as first recognized by Native American Tribes of the Pacific Northwest and brought to light by then graduate student David Close. David has since authored studies on the ecological concerns of Pacific lamprey and their cultural importance to Native Americans. This research remains a primary  example of Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) guiding western science and remains one of OSU’s “Points of Pride.”

Professor Carl Schreck laid a foundation for important ecological and physiological research on lamprey, initially working with Hiram and David. Carl currently leads projects that focus on the Willamette River Basin. The Willamette River supports one of the last traditional Native American harvest sites of Pacific lamprey at Willamette Falls. The Willamette River Basin holds a population that continues to persist despite the greater losses in adjacent basins.

Carl has advised or employed many who are strong advocates of lamprey conservation, people such as: Martin Fitzpatrick, Stacia Sower, Ben Clemens, Matt Mesa, Luke Schultz, Mariah Mayfield, Lance Wyss, Ralph Lampmann, Julia Unrein and April Lindeman. Aquatic ecologist Jason Dunham and his lab are on the cutting edge of Pacific lamprey research and have many great things in store. Have a great month of February!

For more on lamprey research, see Survivors from the Depths of Time.