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With a little bit of help, a species that once thrived in the area is finally making a return to the Upper Yakima River Basin. This weekend, families have a chance to learn more about the fascinating creatures that are Pacific lamprey, and if they are feeling adventurous, they will have the chance to release one into the waterways they have been returned to.

Yakama Nation Fisheries is partnering with multiple environmental organizations to host an adult Pacific lamprey release Saturday morning at People’s Pond outside Ellensburg. The event is being held in conjunction with World Fish Migration Day, which is held every two years. Organizations will have tables set up to help educate attendees on everything lamprey, as well as give provide them with a better understanding of both the purpose and progress of a project designed to restore native habitat for the fish. The second half of the morning will be dedicated to physically releasing the lamprey into the pond, which everyone can take part in.

The event is the second in two weeks that Yakama Nation has hosted, the first being held on the Teanaway River in conjunction with the Kittitas Environmental Education Network’s Get Intimate with the Shrub Steppe event last weekend. At that event, approximately a dozen hardy attendees braved a downpour to learn more about the species and release adult Pacific lamprey into the river.

BRINGING THEM HOME

The Yakama Nation has spent the last 14 years studying the unique fish, embarking on a project that incorporates both adult translocation and juveniles that are artificially propagated at the Yakama Nation Prosser Fish Hatchery. Adults are collected at the Bonneville, Dalles, and John Day dams before being overwintered, fin-clipped, and tagged. They are then brought to release sites throughout the Yakima River Basin. The tribe also works with the Colville Nation in a project to restore lamprey habitat in the Methow and Okanogan Rivers, helping to further return them to their natural range.

According to Yakama Nation Lamprey Biologist Dave’y Lumley, the fish are culturally significant to tribes all along the Columbia River, being served before other courses in tribal ceremonies and feasts. Although tribes used to catch lamprey at Celilo Falls, the construction of the Dalles Dam resulted in the cessation of any harvesting in that stretch of the Columbia River. Lumley said the only sites she knows of that are still used to harvest the fish are at Lyle Falls along the Klickitat River, Fifteen Mile Creek near The Dalles, Shears Falls on the Deschutes River, and Willamette Falls in Oregon.

“Since lamprey are much harder to harvest, they are hardly available at ceremonies and feasts, and a lot of the younger generation have never seen or eaten a lamprey,” Lumley said. “In doing so, they begin to lose that lamprey history. With our help we hope to boost the Pacific lamprey numbers so hopefully they can be harvested more locally from the historical harvest sites that are no longer used. They have fed tribal members for generations and hopefully for generations to come.”

FASCINATING CREATURES

Pacific lamprey has a unique lifecycle similar to salmon, in that they begin their lives in freshwater, travel to the ocean, and then return to freshwater to spawn. Although studies are still underway to better understand why it appears that they don’t necessarily return to the exact spot where they started as salmon do.

According to Yakama Nation lamprey biologist Tyler Beals, who hosted last weekend’s event in the Teanaway, the species is unique in that it spends between three and nine years in freshwater before traveling to the Pacific Ocean. During that time, the species acts as a filter feeder, living in the sediments at the bottom of creeks and rivers in the basin. When they finally make their trip to the ocean, Beals said studies are showing they can spend up to seven years in salt water before returning to spawn. As with salmon, they spawn once and then die. Being high in nutrients, they are an important part of the marine food chain, with many animals being witnessed feeding on their carcasses.

Oral histories passed down through tribal elders indicate that Pacific lamprey existed in the upper reaches of the Yakima River Basin, but Yakama Nation Lamprey Research Biologist Ralph Lampman said the numbers declined so low that the dams stopped counting the number of them that would pass back in the 1980s. Over the past decade, the project has seen success, in that healthy numbers of Pacific lamprey now join the two other species that are native to the watershed, the western brook lamprey and western river lamprey.

Along with the work being done between the Colville and Yakama tribes, Lampman said the tribes also work with other regional organizations and public utilities to accomplish tasks including adding lamprey passage structures along the Columbia Basin, and dealing with water quality issues, pollutant mitigation, and issues related to predation.

As beneficial as they are to both tribal culture and marine ecology, Lumley said lamprey has gotten a bad rap due to issues that have occurred in the Great Lakes. During his presentation in the Teanaway, Beals pointed out that the State of Oregon embarked on a lamprey eradication project before understanding the importance of them in the ecosystem.

Lumley said events like the one in the Teanaway and at People’s Pond are critical in reversing stigmas related to a keystone species that provides many benefits to the region.

“We’re just trying to show the importance of these fish in general within the ecosystem and for people as a whole,” she said. “It will be fun for all ages.”

Reporting for the DR since March 2018. Lover of campfires, black labs and good vibes. Proud Humboldt State alum!