Record-breaking return of the lamprey A cultural victory for indigenous tribes


The next generation of lamprey hunters. Henry Begay helps his younger sister, Jackie, scale the slippery rocks at the base of Willamette Falls.

Ian McCluskey / OPB

When Aaron Jackson was growing up in eastern Oregon, he had never seen a lamprey in the Umatilla River. The elders of the tribe remembered harvesting fish there for ceremonies.

But by the time Jackson was a child, 40 years ago, the lamprey was gone.

Now Jackson is the Lamprey Biologist for the Confederate Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. He is overseeing one of many efforts in the Columbia Basin in Washington and Oregon to restore lamprey runs. Jackson hopes that one day the tribe members can harvest the lamprey from the Umatilla River – and that the fish will be self-sufficient.

“To be able to harvest here in Umatilla, we will once again be able to walk in the footsteps of our ancestors who have harvested lamprey here since time immemorial,” he said.

With financial assistance from the Bonneville Power Administration, the tribes worked to move the lamprey around the dams and down to the Umatilla River.

“We understand the cultural importance of the Pacific lamprey to the tribes, which is one of the reasons we have funded lamprey projects in Umatilla,” said Lorri Bodi, vice president of the environment, fish and wildlife at the Bonneville Power Administration. “As a food source for other creatures, the lamprey is also very important to a healthy ecosystem like that of the Umatilla River, so it’s great to see our efforts pay off.”

The tribe members were excited when they saw the fish start to come back. In 2011, Jackson believed that 129 fish in the river was a major milestone.

Now the number of lampreys has increased significantly. So far this spring, they have seen over 2,600 fish move up the Umatilla River to spawn.

Jackson said he thinks they’ll see at least 3,000 lamprey this summer. It is still not enough for the tribe to harvest, but it is moving in the right direction.

“Due diligence has now grown to a sense of mini-accomplishment. We’re not there yet, but things are looking better, ”Jackson said.

The lamprey is what the natives of the Northwest call a “first food”. They are served at dinners and longhouse parties and used at funerals and weddings.

“It is important to have a healthy, robust and prosperous population in the Umatilla River, because not only is it of ecological importance in the food web, but it is also important for our tribal culture and our tribal history – to be able to continue our traditions, ”Jackson said.

Eva Carl is studying how lamprey bodies could act as fertilizer for waterways.  It monitors the flow of the stream and takes water quality samples every three days.

Eva Carl is studying how lamprey bodies could act as fertilizer for waterways. It monitors the flow of the stream and takes water quality samples every three days.

Courtney flatt

Although there are still many unknowns about the Pacific lamprey, biologists know that they spend up to seven years as larvae in streams before migrating to the sea, where they live for up to three. years before returning to the spawning grounds of the Northwest streams.

In the 1960s and 1970s, it was common practice to root out what people thought were “garbage fish,” Jackson said. Western managers often put the pesticide rotenone in rivers to kill fish like lamprey and suckers – and make room for more desirable fish like salmon and rainbow trout. This was all before biologists realized the ecological importance of these less valued fish.

It was around this time that the tribe began to notice the number of lampreys in the interior dip of the Columbia Basin. The population functionally disappeared in the 1970s. Members of the tribe alerted people to their concerns.

“Their concerns have been fallen on deaf ears by managers for a while,” Jackson said.

In the early 1990s, BPA began funding a lamprey restoration project with the tribe. After years of research, the tribe began collecting lampreys from dams in the Columbia River, bringing them upstream and releasing them just before they spawn.

At first, things moved slowly.

“You could count all the fish in the Three Mile Dam (on the Umatilla River) on both your hands,” Jackson said. Members of the tribe traditionally harvested lamprey at this dam.

Flash before about 25 years.

“Last year we had a return of 2,076 lamprey to the Three Mile Dam. This year, in the first three weeks of May, we broke that record, ”said Jackson.

The Pacific Lamprey is an important food source for the Northwestern tribes.  Their populations have declined dramatically throughout the Columbia River system.

The Pacific Lamprey is an important food source for the Northwestern tribes. Their populations have declined dramatically throughout the Columbia River system.

Flickr Creative Commons: USFWS Pacific

Jackson said lamprey numbers have also increased elsewhere, such as near Hood River, where there are fewer obstacles to their passage. They also saw lamprey numbers return as soon as the dams were removed on the Elwha and White Salmon rivers.

Biologists also work to produce lamprey, as salmon are reared in hatcheries.

“It’s a great experience in the Mid-Columbia Basin,” Jackson said.

He said the tribes hope to release their first hatchery-produced lamprey in a year or two. Then they will have more tools to help increase the number of lampreys into exploitable populations, which is good news for the tribal elders.

“It gives (the elders) the opportunity to reflect on when lamprey populations were like this when they were children, and they had opportunities to harvest lampreys here that they haven’t had in years. 1960, “Jackson said.

Lamprey harvest at the foot of Willamette Falls.

Lamprey harvest at the foot of Willamette Falls.

Morrisey Productions

At present, lamprey can be harvested in Willamette Falls, near Portland, far from home.

Biologists have seen many improvements in fish passage on the main course of the Columbia River, Jackson said, but that could be called into question.

When the US Army Corps of Engineers developed its budget proposal for 2019, it did not request any additional funding for a 10-year lamprey crossing project that ends this year. Previously, about $ 5 million had been spent on lamprey crossing each year, said Matt Rabe, spokesman for the Northwest Division of the Corps.

“We will continue to operate and maintain what is in place – the passage systems that have been built over the past 10 years,” Rabe said. “We will continue to count lamprey at each of our facilities. But as for any new work, I think this is probably on hold until future opportunities are considered and approved.”

Rabe said the Corps will continue to work with the tribes to understand their priorities and concerns about the lamprey crossing.

Jackson said it was frustrating because they are just starting to see progress.

These fixes to the main course of the Columbia River likely helped push lamprey up into the Umatilla River, a tributary of the Columbia, he said.

“We have a long way to go, like up to the Grand Ronde River,” he said, “if things stop and we don’t see funding for the efforts on the main stem, the times will be difficult for the lamprey in (the) upper (basins).

For now, Jackson said, the number of lampreys in the Umatilla River is only continuing to increase. He said others are starting to move adult lampreys after the success here. Confederate tribes from the Umatilla Indian Reservation began to move lamprey to the Grande Ronde River. The Nez Perce tribe also releases lampreys into the Wallowa River.

“It feels good to do something good in the environment for a change, instead of reading all the stories of things wrong,” Jackson said.

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