Pacific lamprey returns eclipsing other years
Pacific lampreys pass through Bonneville Lock & Dam using fish ladders and special ramp-like lamprey passage structures and seen here through viewing windows at the Bradford Island Visitor’s Center, July 6, 2023.

Pacific lamprey, an ancient, eel-like fish species, are seeing returns 170 percent higher than the 10-year average at Bonneville Lock and Dam this year. Lamprey numbers are also 252 percent higher than the four-year average, according to biologists responsible for reporting the number of fish counted as they migrate upstream past mainstem Columbia and Snake River dams.

Pacific lampreys belong to a primitive group of fishes that are eel-like in form but lack the jaws and paired fins of true fishes. Pacific lampreys have a round sucker-like mouth, no scales and gill openings. Identification of lampreys depends largely on the number, structure and position of teeth found in adult lamprey.

(USACE photo by Kerry Solan) (Photo Credit: Kerry Solan)
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PORTLAND, Ore. – Pacific lamprey, an ancient, eel-like fish species, are seeing returns 170 percent higher than the 10-year average at Bonneville Lock and Dam this year. Lamprey numbers are also 252 percent higher than the four-year average, according to biologists responsible for reporting the number of fish counted as they migrate upstream past mainstem Columbia and Snake River dams.

So far, fish counters have tallied 63,863 lampreys moving through the fish ladders during the daytime at Bonneville as of September 18. The 10-year average daytime fish ladder count total is 41,414. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) biologists are optimistic about the numbers they’re seeing.

“We have seen some improvements in lamprey passage success at some dams, thanks to ongoing efforts to modify fishways to make them more “lamprey friendly,” said Sean Tackley, a Northwestern Division, Fish Policy and Program manager. “Our Tribal and federal partners have been critical in helping us make these improvements, and the Tribes continue to lead lamprey restoration efforts throughout the Columbia Basin” said Tackley.

Many now recognize Pacific lamprey for both their ecological and cultural significance in the Columbia River Basin. The Columbia River Inter-Tribal Commission (CRTFC) notes that the fish, “provided an important source of food for the tribes of the Columbia River Basin, who prized them for their rich, fatty meat. They were served alongside salmon at tribal feasts and celebrations.”

Lamprey are also very active at night and pass via special ramp-like lamprey passage structures, so daytime counts are just minimum estimates. Additionally, tribal biologists collect many lampreys at Bonneville for upstream transport to tributaries such as the Umatilla, Clearwater and Yakama rivers. USACE staff estimate the actual total number of lampreys passing the dam this year is probably closer to 165,314.

“Although we’re encouraged by this year’s numbers, we know a lot of this is driven by ocean conditions and food availability in the Pacific Ocean,” stated Tackley. “These kinds of years motivate us all to continue to do what we can to help these important fish.”

Since the 1990s, USACE has used funding to study lamprey passage behavior, develop new and effective passage structures and modify fish ladders at the eight lower Columbia and lower Snake River dams so they work for both salmon and lamprey. These efforts have included Tribes and several other federal agencies. For instance:

• CRITFC (from its website): conducts translocations, genetic monitoring, Hood River natural recolonization, artificial propagation and contaminant accumulation;

• The Bonneville Power Administration: funds translocation programs for Tribal partners, lamprey specific passage improvements, artificial propagation research, and other important research, monitoring and evaluation programs; and

• The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS): works with Tribal, state and federal partners to conserve Pacific lamprey through the Pacific Lamprey Conservation Initiative by assessing population status and threats; conducting and funding research, monitoring and restoration actions; facilitating and participating in technical, management, and policy forums; and advocating for Pacific lamprey as a cultural and ecologically critical species through outreach and education.

"We appreciate the work being done by the Corps, CRITFC and BPA to improve passage for all life stages of Pacific lamprey through the mainstem Columbia and Snake River dams,” said Christina Wang, deputy project leader and longtime lamprey biologist at the Columbia River Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office. “Providing safe mainstem passage is essential for lampreys to fulfill the integral role they play in maintaining healthy ecosystems."

So far, most of the USACE work has focused on fixing adult lamprey passage at the dams, but agency biologists are also now studying downstream passage of juvenile and larval lamprey at the dams so they can better understand how operations and structures may affect passage and survival of these life stages.

Background: According to the USFWS website, “Pacific lampreys belong to a primitive group of fishes that are eel-like in form but lack the jaws and paired fins of true fishes. Pacific lampreys have a round sucker-like mouth, no scales and gill openings. Identification of lampreys depends largely on the number, structure and position of teeth found in adult lamprey.” 2023 fish counts can be found at the Fish Passage Center website.

Pacific lamprey b-roll: https://www.dvidshub.net/video/897934/pacific-lamprey-returns-eclipsing-other-years.

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