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A mysterious creature in our midst

The formidable mouth of a lamprey.  - Contributed photo/ FWS
The formidable mouth of a lamprey.
— image credit: Contributed photo/ FWS

They are the vampires of the sea, roaming our waters at night and drinking blood. They feed off even the most formidable of ocean predators: sharks.

“Basically they are tougher than sharks,” said Mary Moser.

For scientists like Moser, these blood-sucking eel-like fish called lamprey are fascinating to study. Little is known about the vampire-esque creatures despite the fact that they are the oldest fish found in the Columbia River system, appearing in the fossil record 450 million years ago. When Moser speaks at elementary schools about lamprey, she usually says, “Imagine back when dinosaurs were roaming the earth, lamprey fed on dinosaurs.”

She describes the fish as super primitive, living on the planet way before the dinosaurs. Viewing lamprey today is like looking back into history, watching the past and the present collide.

Moser is a fisheries biologist with the NOAA Fisheries and Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. She has studied lampreys for decades.

Once lampreys were abundant along the West Coast of the United States. The fish, which looks like a creature from a sci-fi flick, has smooth and slimy skin and numerous teeth appearing in a circular swirl adapted for clinging and sucking. They can reach 30 inches in length and weigh over a pound. Making these terrifying-looking fish appear even more insidious is their feeding practice. They make holes in the sides of their prey and feed on blood and body fluids for hours, days or even weeks. Large fish can survive a lamprey feeding with just a circular scar left behind.

“I think they’re cute, but other people hate them,” Moser said.

She understands that the fact that they drink blood may make them a hard sell with certain crowds. She explained to the Sounder that unlike other parasites that destroy their hosts, lamprey often just “sip a little blood.”

The fact that they are parasites has been harmful to their image, added Moser. For instance, in the Great Lakes region sea lamprey were introduced to the waters and wreaked havoc on the ecosystem because they were not native. Sea lamprey virtually exterminated lake trout in some of the lakes.

Unlike sea lamprey, Pacific lamprey are native to the Puget Sound and beyond and may have a positive effect on our ecosystems.

The current distribution of the Pacific lamprey in Western

Washington includes most large rivers and streams along the coast and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Moser said they are passing through on their way to streams on the mainland.

According to research documents, Pacific lampreys have been commonly observed throughout the Salish Sea since they were first reported here in 1881, but their abundance and distribution have declined significantly throughout their range over the past three decades.

Lamprey records do not exist for the Salish Sea, but the fish probably occurs in most major river systems throughout the region.

The Lopez-based laboratory Kwiaht and the Wild Fish Conservancy conducted extensive seining and electrofishing in San Juan County streams from 2004 to 2010 and did not encounter any species of lamprey. Moser said lampreys are very difficult to locate because they live in silty sediment and don’t usually respond to electrofishing. When they get a shock they tend to stay in the sediment.

“But this is not all that surprising, since they seem to prefer lake-river systems or larger rivers,” said Russel Barsh, director of Kwiaht.

He added that they have never found a lamprey attached to a juvenile salmon here and they have handled over 3,000 salmon.

The absence of lampreys may have a negative affect on other species like salmon. When populations of lamprey are high they can act as a buffer that helps salmon populations to rise.

From seals to orcas to sturgeon, many predators big and small have the potential to feed on lamprey, taking the pressure off juvenile salmon.

Moser said there is no scientific data to prove that lamprey can help bolster the salmon population, but it’s a concept worth considering when you look at declining lamprey numbers.

“They are like a really high energy bar for fish,” said Moser about lamprey. “Historically lamprey were super abundant.”

Lampreys are also super producers; females can lay over 100,000 eggs, compared to salmon that lay from 2,000 to 5,000 eggs.

Moser said there are no scientific records tracking lamprey through the centuries but oral history from Indian tribes describe large populations in the Columbia and Snake River from the turn of the century until the middle  of the 1900s. Harvest opportunities started dropping off in the middle of the 20th Century.

According to a recent press release by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, threats to Pacific lamprey may include dams, stream degradation, poor water quality and impacts of climate change. Due to these threats the FWS is launching the Pacific Lamprey Conservation Initiative to improve the status of Pacific lamprey throughout their range by helping implement research and conservation actions.

According to the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission, the Pacific lamprey has little economic value in the Pacific Northwest, but “tribal people harvested these fish for subsistence, ceremonial, and medicinal purposes.”

Moser said lampreys  are just as important to tribes as salmon. For Columbia Basin tribes, lamprey is considered a “first food.”

“It was eaten as a ceremonial meal,” she said. “Lamprey has a place at the table with deer and salmon and huckleberries.”

Moser has gotten up close with the fish, from handling it to even tasting lamprey meat. Due to the mucousy and slippery texture of lamprey, one has to wear damp cotton gloves, and despite how terrifying a lamprey may look, Moser has never seen one try to bite a human.

As for the taste of lamprey? Moser said, “It’s a strong flavor, oily kind of dense flesh ... it’s good.”

As for the extinction of lamprey, Moser is optimistic that these fish will endure.

“Part of the reason they have survived this far is that they are super flexible,” she said.

For instance, lampreys must swim upstream to spawn, so they developed suction-like mouths to hold onto rocks to help complete the journey. Both male and female lampreys construct their “spawning” nests also by moving stones with their mouths.

Lampreys have also found a way to survive in both salt water and in freshwater. Even more mysterious, lampreys do not have stomachs. Instead, food goes from the esophagus to intestines. In late winter, the lampreys’ sexual reproductive system grows, their intestines shrink and they live off stored fat.

Looking at other animals that have gone extinct, Moser added that many of those creatures required a narrow set of conditions. When their environment was disturbed those animals could not adapt, but lampreys have a much broader suite of what they can do and where they can live.

“We are not putting them in front of obstacles they never had to deal with,” she said. “They have been able to make it, and it is because they have the ability to adapt, to change.”

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