Parasite with a purpose: Protection for lamprey considered

Parasite with a purpose

Protection for lamprey considered

By Alex Breitler
The Redding Record Searchlight

December 12, 2004

CLEAR CREEK, CA — For starters, they look like snakes.


But there are plenty more reasons to loath the lamprey.

They can grow to be a slimy 30 inches long. Many are parasites. They latch onto prey (or biologists’ fingers, whichever is handy) with their gaping mouths, refusing to let go.

And when it comes to feeding, one biologist colorfully put it this way: Lamprey “make their living by attacking fishes with their sucking mouths, rasping holes in the skin with their piston-like tongues, and pumping out blood and body fluids.”

After reading that, one might wonder if the world would be a better place without the lamprey.

Yet conservation groups have launched a massive effort to protect the ancient, boneless fish under the Endangered Species Act, right alongside more charismatic critters like the bald eagle.

Even a parasite has a purpose, they say.

But the number of lamprey returning from the ocean to spawn has dwindled. Losing the lamprey entirely would forever wipe out a vital part of any river’s ecosystem, said Scott Greacen of the Garberville-based Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC).

“Cute and cuddly isn’t the be-all and end-all of species protection,” Greacen said.

The federal government admits lamprey have been mostly ignored, all but invisible beneath the green waters of Clear Creek and many other channels from Southern California to British Columbia.

But after EPIC and eight other conservation groups sued, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to at least consider studying the lamprey for protection. A decision on whether to initiate a yearlong study is expected next week.

In the meantime, officials say they are paying more attention to the oft-forgotten lamprey.

On Friday, fisheries biologists Matt McCormack and Lael Will drove their pickup down a rocky, rutted road to the banks of Clear Creek, where a floating station with a “screw trap” waits to capture unsuspecting aquatic animals.

The fish are sucked into a cone that rotates in the current. They’re kept in a screened tank until biologists, who conduct daily checks, release them.

It proved a good day to look for lamprey. The storms last week apparently stirred up a whole bunch of juveniles, who normally spend their days sucking up algae off the creek bottom.

This day, they found themselves in a white bucket, where the roughly 180 wormlike fish could only suck on its lifeless plastic sides as the biologists watched.

No one knows how many will reach adulthood. In a few years, those that aren’t gobbled up by predators will head downstream to the ocean, where they’ll prey on salmon and even whales before returning inland to spawn and die like their more renowned neighbors, the chinook salmon.

“They’re definitely very interesting creatures,” Will said.

Interesting—and in trouble.

Populations vary greatly among the four species that conservationists want listed. At the Red Bluff diversion dam, more than 1,000 adult Pacific lamprey were routinely spotted in the late 1960s and ’70s. In 1972, the number skyrocketed to an abnormal 38,492.

But in 1998, there were zero.

In 2002, the most recent year for which a figure was available, 53 adult lamprey were spotted at the dam.

Jim Smith of the Red Bluff U.S. Fish and Wildlife office remembers a day when lamprey could be seen wriggling onto the sides of the dam, as they’re prone to do sometimes to take a breather from their journey upstream.

“We don’t see that anymore,” Smith said. “We don’t know if that’s because the numbers have dropped. We don’t know enough about them to really say one way or the other.”

Humans certainly have had a hand in the decline, conservationists say. Closer to the coast, the Eel River drew its name from the lamprey, which superficially resembles an eel but is not related. In the early 20th century, lamprey were electrocuted on that river to stop them from interfering with power generation.

Also, hundreds of thousands have been commercially harvested for vitamin oil, fish meal and protein food for livestock.

Other hazards, many of which salmon also face, include:

Dams: These block passage upstream. The construction of Trinity Dam cut off one lamprey population from the ocean, and the landlocked fish still swim today in Trinity Lake.

Irrigation ditches: Juvenile lamprey wander into them and die.

Altered river flows: This can leave fish high and dry or reduce habitat.

For all its disagreeable habits, the fish does have its uses.

Although they feast on salmon, salmon also feast on them. What’s more, lamprey make a fine meal for a hungry sea lion that otherwise might snatch a valued kingfish in its jaws.

Oil from lamprey was used by Indians as an anticoagulant. Lamprey carcasses have served as subjects in anatomy classes, and scientists once took the brain of a different lamprey species and put it into a robot, demonstrating that the machine would move toward light.

American Indians still harvest lamprey, casting nets at the mouths of the Trinity and Klamath rivers. The meat is smoked and passed out to tribal people.

The Wintu Indians once took lamprey from the Sacramento River just below where Keswick Dam stands today. But lower water flows and warmer temperatures cause today’s lamprey to burn off more fat and lose nutritional value on their journey upstream, said Bob Burns of Redding, a member of the Wintu Education and Cultural Council.

“If you ate them once, you’d always want some around,” said Burns. “But we just don’t get the quality and the quantity of them that we used to. It’s too bad.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service says the lamprey’s not-so cheery disposition and odd behavior—its name is Latin for “rock sucker”—have nothing to do with its lack of protection to this point.

“We’re working on some species that would appear very insignificant, just as diligently as we’re working on the headline species,” said Al Donner, a spokesman at the service’s Sacramento office.

The real problem, he said, is a “huge backlog” of work that has created a 10-year delay in putting new species on the endangered or threatened list.

However, Greacen, the conservationist, says the wildlife service is under pressure not to list any more species.

“They’re spending a lot of money defending lawsuits rather than doing the listing work,” he said.

Back on the banks of Clear Creek, Will, the biologist, scanned papers inside an inch-thick white binder for facts about the lamprey slithering around inside the bucket.

That small binder contains just about everything the biologists know about these mysterious fish.

On the other hand, if you were to take everything that’s been written about salmon, “You’d have enough to fill a truck,” said Will’s partner, McCormack.

But that imbalance may be changing—slowly but surely, like the lamprey’s wriggling journey hundreds of miles up the swift Sacramento.

Shedding light on lamprey

The lamprey’s roots go back 500 million years, and it’s is one of the few fish remaining today that has no true jaw—or bones. Some facts:

Lamprey are born in freshwater streams. The larvae live in burrows in the silt, feeding mostly on algae for four to six years.

After developing eyes, some lamprey species migrate to the ocean where they live up to three years feeding on the blood and body fluids of fish and even whales.

They return to fresh water, relying on body fat during the long journey upstream. Then they spawn and die.

Lamprey are a source of food for birds, fish and marine mammals, such as seals and sea lions. They also have been harvested by humans, including American Indians.

Citing dams and other obstacles to lamprey survival, conservationists have asked the federal government to protect four species that swim in West Coast waterways: Pacific lamprey, river lamprey, western brook lamprey and Kern brook lamprey. Pacific is the most common, though river and western brook also are found in the north state.

A decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on whether to conduct a yearlong study of lamprey could come later this month.