LAPWAI, Idaho – At the Nez Perce Tribal Hatchery, hundreds of eel-like fish slither in holding tanks, their black eyes twinkling in the dark water like something from a child’s nightmare. The jawless fish has a toothed, suction-like mouth and a long, thin body.
“The lamprey remind me of an underdog story,” said Jeremy FiveCrows, public affairs specialist for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. “Here is this kind of unattractive creature just trying to make its way through this environment that is so inhospitable to it.”
People often think of salmon as the fish that embodies the Pacific Northwest. But the Pacific lamprey has existed in the Columbia Basin for 450 million years, going back to the time of the dinosaurs. As money and resources have been poured into protecting the salmon, the Pacific lamprey has inched closer to demise.
In the 1950s, biologists counted 400,000 adult lampreys migrating from the Pacific Ocean past Bonneville Dam and upstream to spawn. Current counts have dipped down to 20,000, according to the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.
Hydroelectric dams kill thousands of migrating lamprey, according to Todd Sween, a field team member for the Pacific lamprey consultation project.
“They have to pass through eight dams to get to our country, and at each one, basically, we lose about 50 percent of the lamprey on the average,” Sween said.
Now, Native American tribes in the Columbia Basin are leading an effort to save the lamprey, catching them with nets before they reach the dams, driving them upriver to hatcheries, and then releasing them each spring. This month, the tribes will release about 350 lamprey into Northwest rivers to spawn.
“Eels are part of who we are as Nez Perce,” said Raymond Ellenwood, a technician for the hatchery and member of the Nez Perce tribe. “If we’re not part of the solution, we’re a part of the problem.”
The Nez Perce first attempted relocating lampreys in 2006. Since then, the results of the program have been encouraging, they say.
“The adults are spawning, they’re staying where we put them,” Sween said. “We also now have evidence through electrofishing that there are young spawning in the target streams that we’re doing these plants in.”
Even so, supporters say the biggest step to lamprey recovery is reconfiguring the dams. The structures have been altered to help allow salmon to pass through them, but the migrating lamprey are unable to successfully navigate the dams. The tribes along the Columbia Basin hope to develop a passage system for the lamprey, which have long been part of native culture.
The lamprey are a key dish in traditional feasts, used in cultural performances, and are even believed to have medicinal purposes. The Pacific lamprey have extremely high fat content, which make them valuable to tribal diets, but also to the diets of the animals in the ecosystem.
“Pound for pound, one lamprey is equal in caloric value to five salmon,” said Aaron Penney, a production supervisor for the Nez Perce Fisheries.
Returning from the ocean also means the Pacific lamprey bring back valuable nutrients unique and vital to the rivers, such as iodine. Upon the lamprey’s death, these nutrients are released back into the forests and mountains, fertilizing the area around the river as well.
Asotin, a town near Lapwai, translates from Nez Perce to “place of the lamprey.”
“When elders talk about them, they speak with almost a reverence for what the lamprey mean to them,” FiveCrows said. “It goes beyond something for feasts and as a food source, but they’re this important part of the river system.”
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