The air has been buzzing over the lately about the lamprey. These ancient fish aren’t that pleasing to the eye and don’t swim like normal fish (the suck their way upstream). Both of these factors have contributed to the rapidly diminishing numbers of lamprey in Oregon rivers. In the 1960’s, somewhere around 400,000 lampreys swam up the Columbia River each summer. These numbers dwindled to 117,000 in 2003 and 14,000 in 2008. These low numbers are especially surprising since last year a new duct was built so that lampreys could make their way up the river more easily. Since lampreys aren’t especially good swimmers and rely on sucking their way up the river near the bottom of the stream in the slower moving waters, they have a difficult time climbing the ladders built to help the salmon migrate upstream.
Lampreys have been around for 360 million years which is about 354 million years longer than salmon. Their life cycle also differs from the salmon in that their larvae spend six years feeding in the bottom of streams and rivers until they change into adults and are carried out to sea where they spend around three years feeding off of the blood of other fish. Since they move more slowly than salmon, they are eaten by a number of other fish and mammals. When the number of lampreys in the river dwindles, these fish and mammals will likely turn to salmon for their meals.
Aside from their important place in the ecosystem, lampreys are an important fish to many Northwest tribes. They are used as food, as medicine, and for ceremonial purposes in these different cultures. The Umatilla tribe uses their oil to cure earaches and their skin as bandages. If lampreys go extinct, this cultural element will be lost.
There is currently a push to research lampreys more thoroughly, though there is a definite lack of funding at the moment. The numerous fish ladders and dams throughout the Pacific Northwest are being looked at and adapted when possible. The most difficult barrier to overcome is the protection of salmon. Any changes that are made to these fish ladders or dams must not hinder salmon in any way since salmon are already under a great deal of protection by the government.