Pacific lamprey have survived 5 mass extinctions but are now under threat
Pacific lamprey are not endearing at first glance. The most striking feature of their almost featureless bodies is their soul-boring cobalt-blue eyes. But what you can never unsee is the “oral disc,” a jawless, hook-toothed sucker mouth that seems perfect for gobbling space mercenaries into sand dunes. “They look like scary-ass monsters,” said Michael Belchik, senior water policy analyst for the Yurok Tribe and a former fish biologist. Ralph Lampman, a lamprey research biologist at Yakama Fisheries, compared lamprey to Yoda and said they have the wisdom of Jedi masters.
(This story was originally published on January 26, 2022, by High Country News. It is republished here with permission)
Lamprey hail from the infraphylum Agnatha, jawless fish with a spinal cord but no vertebrae — only a terrifying cartilage skeleton. Don’t Google it. Like salmon, they’re anadromous, growing up in freshwater before migrating out to sea. They return to spawn but lack site fidelity, meaning they don’t return to their home spawning grounds. An adult lamprey in the Columbia River could have hatched upstream in Russia or Japan. They can swim a thousand miles inland, even to landlocked Idaho, where they spawn and die, depositing marine-derived nutrients that grow Pacific conifer forests, including the mighty redwoods—a peer amongst the oldest living things on earth. “Forests and trees are made of fish,” said Keith Parker, Yurok tribal member and senior fisheries biologist with the Yurok Fisheries Department. If they come upon a waterfall, lamprey don’t stop. Lamprey have sucker mouths. Lamprey climb. They inch up wet surfaces with a leap-and-latch shimmy that, when populations were high, left rocks blanketed in a wriggling mass.
While salmon get good publicity for being yummy, healthy and beautiful, their ugly cousins are the true superfood — 4.1 times as rich in omega-3 fatty oils (which boost baby brain development and could prevent psychopathology), and with over four times the calories of salmon, despite being smaller. Sea lions will swim past salmon for a chance to catch a lamprey. “It’s pretty much the healthiest seafood in the world,” said Lampman.
There’s something about lamprey that hooks people, converting them into enthusiasts, much like cat ladies, if cats were creepy prehistoric fish. “Lamprey have a way of bringing people together,” said Kelly Coates, a tribal member and Water and Environmental Resources Program manager with the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians, adding that they “sort of look like Bullwinkle” during their maturation phase. A few years ago, Coates and other tribal representatives helped the Oregon Zoo build a culturally specific lamprey exhibit — only the second place in the West to actually charge people to look at these creatures. (The first was the High Desert Museum in Bend, Oregon. A third exhibit opened at the Sequoia Park Zoo in Eureka, California, continuing a model of Native-led species ambassadorship.)
Lamprey have been around longer than sturgeon and dinosaurs, even longer than trees. All trees. They’ve survived five mass extinctions and haven’t evolved since at least the Cretaceous Era, 66 million years ago. But these Devonian darlings may not be long for the modern world. Dams, habitat degradation, extirpation and other colonial factors have reduced returning lamprey numbers in some basins from millions to what you can count on one hand. “This might be their extinction,” Lampman said. “Our impact is more than 400 million years of impact combined. It’s a wake-up call for us.”
Tribal conservation of this keystone species has never stopped, and in recent decades organizations like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have begun lending a hand. The non-Native public is finally taking an interest, but because lamprey have little value from a Western perspective, they remain critically understudied. There’s still a lot about this underdog species that scientists don’t know.
WHEN COATES BEGAN RESEARCHING lamprey a decade ago, she was starting from almost nothing. Her team worked with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey, and U.S. Forest Service to gather foundational data. “We did local knowledge surveys. And then we also did some interviews with our tribal elders as well to find out where they (lamprey) were, where they have been sighted in the past. And then we built a GIS database.”
Meanwhile, on the eponymous Eel River in Northern California, a former agency fish biologist named Damon Goodman helped build a monitoring station in 2016 to count returning lamprey. The station doubles as a fish passage uniquely designed for lamprey to circumvent the Cape Horn Dam. Most fish passages are designed for salmon and cause maneuverability problems for lamprey. The station supplied lamprey to the Sequoia Park Zoo’s new exhibit, which was built in partnership with the Wiyot Tribe, rotating the animals out when they’re ready to spawn and bringing in new ones that are done feeding, like they do at the Oregon Zoo.
Lampreys’ unusual life cycle is in itself worthy of a Ridley Scott sci-fi thriller. Nocturnal and unseen, larval lamprey, called ammocoetes, burrow beneath your toes in your favorite swimming hole, filter feeding, aerating the water, recycling nutrients and feeding bigger fish. “They spend up to seven years in sediment filtering our water,” Coates explained, “being a bit of an ecosystem engineer.” Ammocoetes look like worms, not fish. In fact, ammocoetes and adult lamprey are so different, Western scientists classified them as different species until a few decades ago, when modern genetics advanced.
After two years, or maybe seven (nobody knows why, but it varies), ammocoetes metamorphosize, sprouting eyeballs, a kidney to handle seawater and that trademark sucker mouth. No longer filter feeders, they journey to the ocean to latch onto a host fish and live their adult lives as parasites, traveling the Pacific by whale, drinking the host’s fluids and keeping the wound fresh with their tiny rasping tongues. After a few years, a smell diverts their course: fresh babies.
Adult lamprey can detect the pheromones of upriver ammocoetes all the way down at the estuary. Intuiting that this new-baby smell indicates fertile spawning ground, they detach from their marine host and journey back into the freshwater world, fattened with marine nutrients. It’s the last time they eat. Lamprey are weaker swimmers than salmon, but they can climb to upper tributaries even salmon can’t reach.
“They came back by the millions” in precolonial days, said Parker. “Pacific lamprey were the largest biomass of anything in the river — not just fish, but of anything.”
After spawning, decaying lamprey formed a smelly, oily film on the water that tribal elders remember. “People would leave the river until the film and the smell went away,” Parker said. Now, the mighty mass of anadromous fish is dwindling. “Over 90% of their numbers have been wiped out.”
Lamprey tallied at Goodman’s station dropped from over 11,000 in the mid-2010s to fewer than 100 in 2020. In 2021, Goodman only counted four. “We have no lampreys to collect for the exhibit” at Sequoia Park Zoo, he told me in an email. Later, on the phone, he said, “I wish I had more of an answer there for why.”
MICHAEL BUCK, a Yakama Nation tribal member and a fisheries technician with the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, called lamprey’s decline a “strategic extirpation,” a deliberate destruction meant to damage Native communities and make room for salmon.
“One of the elders called it the logic of the uninformed,” Buck said. “Kill the eels so there could be more salmon.” (Although they’re jawless fish, like humans’ own ancient ancestors, many Natives use the English word “eels” to refer to lamprey, whether in defiance of settler pedantry, or as a reminder that English and Latin are foreign here, or just because that’s what elders called them. It’s a bit like the buffalo/bison thing.)
Parker agreed. “The dams in particular have been really impactful,” he said, adding that it’s no coincidence lamprey are understudied. “There’s no commercial value for Pacific lamprey on the West Coast,” he said. “They’re only important, really, to Native American tribes.” He contrasted this with the salmon industry, which, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, generates $900 million dollars per year in that state alone.
For Natives, lamprey are more than just food. They’re important in ceremony and stories of natural law. “When the Creator was identifying food for Native people at the beginning of time, He marked them,” said Wenix Red Elk, public outreach education specialist at the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. The Creator’s mark is a neat row of seven circular gills, corresponding to the Seven Drum religion and its seven sets of seven ceremonial songs.
Buck tells how Asúm — as Lamprey is called in Ichishkíin — was once a chief, even stronger and more beautiful than Chief Salmon, until he gambled away his belongings, his beauty, his stamina, even his bones, in a fitful stick game. But Asúm still swims with Chief Salmon, says Buck, and holds a place on the table of sacred foods, even if he’s lower in the hierarchy than Salmon, or even than roots, chokecherries and huckleberries. “He still tries to show his strength, climbing the waterfalls with his mouth.”
Red Elk describes a salmony flavor similar to smoked eel from sushi restaurants, but richer and more intense. “The best way to cook it is to barbecue it,” she said. The tail gets crispy, and you can eat the whole thing — even the head. “It’s my favorite.” Slow roasting brings out the oils, which were traditionally used to treat earaches.
Coates said the oil is also good for teething babies, who sometimes chew on dried lamprey, or Xtáan, as lamprey are called in Takelma. “All the tribal elders said it’s the oil in it that’s going to help soothe the gums,” she said. Lamprey oil is also used for hair and skin care.
Considering their ecological, ceremonial, mythological, culinary and medicinal importance, it’s easy to see why Brother Eel has so much value to tribes — and provides a classic case of Western science needing to catch up with traditional ecological knowledge. Tribal conservation efforts include artificial propagation, habitat restoration and translocation — literally just trucking coolers full of lamprey past the dams and putting them on tribal lands a few hundred miles upstream. But it will take a much more cooperative effort to truly restore lamprey. “This is a Band-Aid until all the passage issues are improved,” said Lampman.
Goodman says people should get over their horrified fixations on the oral disc. “I don’t know when was the last time you looked inside your own mouth,” he laughed. “It is not a pretty place.”
“Salmon, steelhead, tuna, crab, they get tons of money thrown at them for research,” Parker noted, while lamprey’s destruction has been largely dismissed. “Nobody really gave a shit because if they can wipe out all of our food sources — it was like what they did with the buffalo — then they can wipe the Indian out on the West Coast.”
Tribes have spent years petitioning the Fish and Wildlife Service to list Pacific lamprey as endangered. While those efforts have been unsuccessful, the fish do have some federal protection as a “tribal trust species.” The Klamath is a hotspot for lamprey biodiversity, home to numerous species of endemic brook and lake lamprey, which don’t migrate out to sea. Two years ago, Parker discovered two new genotypes of Pacific lamprey. He eschewed Latin names and in his published, peer-reviewed paper dubbed them key’ween and tewol (“lamprey” and “ocean” in Yurok). In all future scientific literature, researchers will refer to them by these names.
“People are using the terms now, they’re using Yurok words to describe these two new species,” said Parker. “I was proud of that.”
Regardless of what you call them — key’ween, lamprey, eels, or just “scary-ass monsters” — these peculiar animals are slithering their way into conservationists’ hearts in a lovable kind of parasitic bio-horror way. Thanks to the hard work of tribal conservationists and their newfound groupies, lamprey could be on the verge of a renaissance instead of an extinction.
Brian Oaster (they/them) is a staff writer at High Country News and a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. They are an award-winning investigative journalist living in the Pacific Northwest. Email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.