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Elmer Crow of the Nez Perce Tribe and Jeff Yanke of Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife released 40 lampreys into the Wallowa River last week. MARY EDWARDS photo
Culturally significant fish reintroduced into Wallowa River
Descendants of former Wallowa County residents returned last week when the Nez Perce Tribe released 40 lamprey into the Wallowa River.
On April 5, Elmer Crow of the Nez Perce Tribe along with Jeff Yanke, Enterprise district fish biologist for Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, released lamprey at confluence of the Wallowa and Minam rivers and downriver at the Minam State Park campground.
Lampreys have received a lot of press lately because of their dwindling numbers.
The slithery fish struggle to make their way over the fish ladders on the Columbia River so the Nez Perce and Umatilla tribes combined efforts to collect and trans-locate lamprey to the Wallowa in hopes they will spawn and create a native population, said Jim Harbeck, field office supervisor for Nez Perce Fisheries.
The lampreys are wild, not from hatcheries, and were gathered at the John Day, The Dalles and the Bonneville dams’ fish ladders, said Harbeck. Not to be confused with eels, lampreys are fish and have an historic significance in the diet of Pacific Northwest native cultures.
“Lampreys are pretty unique,” said Harbeck. “They are a fish, but don’t have bones, only cartilage. They do not have paired fins, just two dorsal fins on top.”
Adult lampreys grow to lengths of 15 to 30 inches as adults.
Like salmon and steelhead, Pacific lampreys spawn in smaller tributaries and spend most of their lives in fresh water. Both the male and female prepare the redd, or nest, together, moving rocks with their mouths.
“They build the redds with the same intent as salmon with hydraulics in mind to create a good habitat for the eggs they lay,” said Harbeck.
As many as 10,000 eggs are laid by a female in springtime during the same time frame as steelhead. After the eggs hatch the young lamprey find silty areas, muddy type river bottoms, to burrow down and live as filter feeders, filtering the river’s water and eating algae.
“They are making our water clearer because they are filtering it,” said Harbeck.
Lampreys don’t move very far from where they are planted, said Harbeck, about two miles or less.
“Through radio telemetry tracking in Idaho we know they do not move great distances after they are released and before they spawn,” said Harbeck.
With radio tags, Nez Perce Fisheries biologists have documented natural reproduction from releases on Lolo and Newsome Creek in the Clearwater River drainage.
Harbeck said, “Juvenile lampreys were found in these creeks formerly barren of juveniles.”
Lampreys live in freshwater from three to seven years at the bottom of a river feeding on algae. Afterward, they begin to metamorphose and drift downstream out to the ocean where they live one to three years as adults.
Once acclimated to the ocean, the adults change their feeding to prey on a variety of marine fish and other anadromous fish (fish that live in both the ocean and freshwater rivers) and even some marine mammals. They have no jaw, but a sucker mouth, with which they attach themselves to their hosts and suck blood and bodily fluids.
Harbeck said the Pacific lampreys range from Japan to southeast Alaska and into Mexico, but their biggest populations are in British Columbia and the Columbia River.
Though not listed under the federal Endangered Species Act, the lampreys’ numbers have been drastically reduced. Harbeck said in 2010 there were only 15 counted coming over the Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River.
Harbeck said improvements for fish passage through hydro-electric dams have helped salmon, but have not necessarily helped the lamprey — that’s why they are picked up on the lower Columbia and trans-located to spawning areas.
Historically lamprey spawned in smaller streams like Joseph Creek, said Harbeck.
“Older Wallowa Countians remember large numbers of lamprey in the Wallowa River. I’ve heard first hand from people who said they saw these snake-like creatures when they were young,” said Harbeck.
Lampreys were not seen in the Wallowa River before their reintroduction, but Harbeck said, “We do rarely catch lamprey in the Imnaha River smolt (juvenile salmon and steelhead) trap; juvenile lamprey on their way out to the ocean. They aren’t completely gone from the county, but their numbers are drastically reduced.”
Lampreys have been culturally significant to the native people of the Pacific
Northwest for thousands of years as a food source and are higher in calories than salmon.
Trans-locating lampreys to the tributaries of the Columbia is not the only answer to recovery, said Harbeck, but it’s a step in the process. He emphasized that they are also important to biodiversity and provide food for sea lions as well as tribal people.
Reintroducing lampreys not only benefit the tribe, said Harbeck, but they benefit the county in terms of its ecosystem.
“They were a missing part for a long time,” said Harbeck.