Yakama Tribe celebrates an ancient friendThey are older than dinosaurs. They have no bones. They have no jaw, just a round sucker face with a circle of teeth – likely the model of many science fiction monsters. They are slimy and wriggly, yet some think they're cute. They are Pacific lampreys, and they were the object of a celebration last month.
In honor of World Fish Migration Day on May 21, Yakama Nation Fisheries held an "Asum (Lamprey) Release Event" in Ahtanum Creek west of Union Gap. The Asum has been a staple of the Yakama traditional diet for millennia. Some tribal members call them "Indian Hot Dogs." Yet this ancient creature has been in steep decline for decades, and many worry they are on their way to join salmon as an endangered species.
Like salmon, lamprey are anadromous -
they migrate up rivers from the sea to spawn.
We parked and joined a small group of curious people of all ages. Tables were set up in a semi-circle with displays about the life cycle of the lamprey, their cultural history with the tribe, and their ecological significance.
Like salmon, lamprey are anadromous — they migrate up rivers from the sea to spawn. But Pacific lamprey live a unique life cycle. When adults are ready to spawn, like the ones that waited in large red tubs in the back of a Fishery pick-up truck, they gather golf-ball sized stones with their sucker mouths and build a nest in the stream bed. The male gives the female a big kiss and doesn't let go, wrapping around her to aid in the release of eggs. After he fertilizes the eggs, the adults' lives are done.
No eyes, suckers, or teeth
The eggs hatch into miniature lamprey larvae, called ammocoetes. They are the size of your pinky nail with no eyes, suckers, or teeth. They drift until they find a home for the next few years — a nice pile of wet muck. There they live and grow as filter feeders of organic material for three to seven years. Then they go through a metamorphosis into juveniles called macrophthalmia, which have all the adult features.
The juveniles migrate out to the sea, where they feed parasitically on mostly large fish and an occasional marine mammal. They attach with the sucking disc and drink a little fluid, then move on. The host is usually unharmed — fisherman may find lamprey scars on an otherwise large, healthy adult salmon. After one to three years at sea, they've grown large and fat and head back up the rivers. This might explain why returning lamprey were a tasty treat to Native Americans.
The final stage of their life cycle is a migration upstream to a spawning stream. They stop eating and wind their way through fish ladders and over dams. They can climb steep barriers by clinging with their sucker mouths and inching upward in short leaps. Unlike salmon, they don't home to a specific native stream, but will seek out any hospitable stream similar to where salmon spawn. They'll overwinter, living off their body fat and shrinking in size and then begin the cycle again, spawning in the spring.
The leader of the Yakama's event was Ralph Lampman, a fishery biologist who specializes in, and apparently loves, lamprey. He introduced Tribal staff and volunteers who help with the lamprey program, and also U.S. Fish and Wildlife staff who were helping out. A tribal elder sang a song and made a prayer. Then Ralph explained the tribal program, embellishing his talk with an original lamprey rap song.
Problems lamprey face
We returned to the tables, where we learned about the problems lamprey face. The ammocoetes go through fish screens to burrow into silt in irrigation ditches, but later grow too large to get out and are trapped when the ditches dry out. Like salmon, they face the challenges of habitat destruction and water pollution. Migrating juveniles and adults also face problems similar to salmon in trying to get past dams. Before development of the Columbia River, lamprey runs were likely in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, but now fewer than 50,000 pass Bonneville Dam, and the numbers decline at each dam upstream.
Yakama tribal staff had collected from Prosser Dam the 54 lamprey we were to release. They held them over the winter, and they were now ripe for spawning. Ralph called us from the tables to gather at the stream bank to begin releasing the lamprey. We walked through a curtain of trees with spring buds to the cobbled shoreline of a full and briskly flowing Ahtanum Creek.
At first we all watched the writhing lamprey in their tubs with a little trepidation. Some of the biologists donned cotton gloves and brought some out to show how to hold them and release them into the creek. Lots of gloves were provided, so soon we were all taking turns to pick out lampreys. When you hold one, they are writhing cylinders with pulsating muscle, which, combined with their slick skin, make them challenging to hang on to. With a little practice and firm grips, we were soon enjoying ourselves, dropping the wiggly little fellers into the water and watching them swim off to their destiny.
Soon the buckets were empty, and we watched at the streamside contemplating the magic of spring time and the renewed cycle of life. It's hard to believe that one of nature's most ancient creatures, which most folks would avoid with revulsion, could become attractive. But those quirky little "eels" grow on you. My wife and I are now big fans of the adorable Pacific Lamprey.
By Paul Pickett, Environmental Engineer with the Environmental Assessment Program
Video by the Yakama Nation
Check out the Yakima Herald's photo gallery of the Lamprey release event.