Photo USFWS via flickr and Creative Commons license.
Nearly everybody knows about Pacific salmon and the billions of dollars and massive human effort that has gone in to pushing the species back from extinction. But what about the not-too-pretty, rock-sucking Pacific lamprey with its zero economic value? It's population numbers have gone from an estimated 1 million in the 1970s to 200,000 in 2003 to around 20,000 today. Those dwindling figures don't bode well for an eel-like fish that used to feed indigenous populations and which one Nez Perce elder refers to in this Seattle Times article as, "the first so-called American hotdog."
The Pacific lamprey isn't even listed as an endangered species. The name lamprey means rock-sucker, and these strange creatures don't look much or act much like fish, though they aren't considered eels either. They are smooth and slimy, without scales, fins, jaws, or bones. The circular arcs of teeth and sucking action helps them cling to river-bottom rocks.
With the decline of the population, the traditional harvesting of the lamprey among Pacific Northwest tribes has narrowed to just one site - Willamette Falls on the
Columbia Willamette River.
Juvenile lamprey. Photo USFWS Pacific via flickr and Creative Commons.
Catching lamprey as water continually gushes over the falls looks like fun if the temperatures are right. The smooth and slippery bodies are pulled off the rocks by hand and tossed in nets, and the oil-rich fish are usually roasted over an open fire.
Like the salmon, the lamprey is born in freshwater, in this case in the Columbia, then migrates to the ocean and returns to the river to spawn.
It's not just dams that have threatened the lamprey - poor water quality also plays a role.
But though a group of petitioners tried to get the Pacific lamprey and three other types of lamprey listed as endangered in 2004, the Fish and Wildlife Service has maintained that the money to do a necessary status review is not available. The lamprey had no economic value, though sea lamprey may hold the key to spinal cord regeneration.
Without legal endangered status, the Pacific lamprey may simply languish into extinction.