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Trash fish a big key to sustainability

Decline of lowly Pacific lamprey is cause for concern
by: Robin Lewis, 
A Pacific lamprey is shown nestling at the mouth of the Klamath River in California. Once a staple of the rivers of the Northwest, the fish has been making a mysterious disappearance.

In the fish kingdom, the Pacific lamprey pretty well scrapes the bottom when it comes to prestige.

In fact, over in the Great Lakes the lamprey are considered strictly a nuisance, an invasive species that is choking the streams for more worthwhile fish. The objective there is to kill them all off.

'They've been labeled a trash fish,' said Robin Lewis, restoration coordinator for Friends of Tryon Creek State Park.

But when it comes to sustainability in the Northwest, the Pacific lamprey are very important, indeed. They are a native species to this region, and their mysterious decline in recent years is truly cause for concern.

If the Pacific lamprey disappears, what will disappear next? Probably a much more prestigious fish like the salmon. And the disappearing won't stop there.

'This has been a pretty adaptable fish that's been around for tens of thousands of years,' said Lewis. 'It has strong connections to other species. Its population decline has been going so rapidly for the past 10 or 15 years that it's really notable.

'What's going on? What does this mean for everything else?'

Not everyone considers the Pacific lamprey a trash fish, which Lewis has discovered through personal investigation. While working for her master's degree in applied anthropology, she did interviews with the Yurok and Karuk tribes of the Klamath River Basin in Northern California.

'Native American tribes see them as highly valuable,' Lewis said. 'They're considered an important ceremonial food. Those tribes were the first who noticed the decline, because they used to harvest thousands of them at a time and feed a whole village. Now they're not getting any.'

Due to the generally low esteem with which they are held, the Pacific lamprey have not received a great deal of attention from biologists. But at the places where data has been taken, big drops in population were recorded.

The reason for the decline could be a combination of these factors:

n Human influence in California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia.

n Dams changing the way water flows.

n Draining of wetland.

n Logging, which causes erosion.

n Increased temperatures due to global warming.

n Spraying, which contaminates river systems.

n Agriculture.

This is of great significance.

'Pacific lamprey would fill a river system,' Lewis said. 'There would be millions of them spawning and dying, and they would be food for bears, vultures and heron. They're an important source of nutrients for other species.

'Pacific lamprey are a big prey species for other wildlife. They're fat, slow, easy to catch, and they move in groups. They take the pressure off the salmon. They act as a buffer for young salmon.'

So should people worry about the humble Pacific lamprey? The answer is 'Absolutely.'

'If they're doomed, you have to worry about everything,' Lewis said. 'They're not the poster child of the Northwest, and there is no funding to protect them.'

That situation is being studied by tribes and some wildlife agencies.

'They asking, 'What restoration can be done? How fast can they repopulate?'' Lewis said. 'The Pacific lamprey have a chance because they're pretty resilient. If we make some changes, hopefully they'll come back on their own, and that will be good news for other species.'

Beyond sustainability is the fact that these fish are very significant for a lot of West Coast tribes and along the Columbia River.

'To lose this fish species then becomes a social justice issue,' Lewis said. 'They are so important to a lot of cultures.

'In the Great Lakes, … lamprey are actually harmful and they're trying to eradicate them. That's not true here. They have a place and a purpose.'

Lewis is definitely doing her part to make people aware of the Pacific lamprey's importance. One of those ways came on March 9 when she spoke on the fish as part of Tryon Park's regular lecture series.

There are even some Pacific lamprey swimming around in the park's vicinity that can serve as examples.

'We're trying to work for habitat here and make this park as healthy a system as possible, so it can be used for spawning,' Lewis said. 'We're still learning. There's a lot of information needed.'

Tryon Creek State Park is located at 11321 S.W. Terwilliger Blvd. in Portland.