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Willamette River eels slip into trouble

Declining lamprey population worries tribes, many others
by: L.E. Baskow, 
Yakima tribe member Bobby Begay searches for lampreys atop the slick rocks of Willamette Falls in Oregon City. The harvest this day by members of the Yakima and Warm Springs tribes brought in enough lampreys to fill an abundance of coolers, as well as supply a powwow last month.

By LEE VAN DER VOO

Pamplin Media Service

Four men, a young woman and two boys walk soaking wet from a small boat on an Oregon City boat launch on a sunny Friday morning.

Most are in sneakers and socks, shorts and T-shirts, the fabric plastered to their skin. A few have short hair, which is mostly dry. Others drip water from black braids and ponytails. They are old and young. One boy is barely taller than 5 feet.

The boy is Clayton Anderson, 15, a member of the Yakima Nation and the grandson of Ron Suppah, chairman of the Warm Springs tribe, who's also just stepped off the boat. Suppah walks to the driver's side of his pickup truck, shaking off the water.

The two tribes are close, they often intermarry, and they share in rituals such as this lamprey harvest at Willamette Falls in Oregon City, which the group tackled with nothing more than nets.

Scaling rocks in tennis shoes, sometimes grasping hands, the tribal members weathered strong currents, the pounding water of the falls and slippery terrain to gather lampreys where they cling to the rocks.

Lampreys are a staple food of the six tribes with interests in the Willamette River, but these annual harvests, though a long tradition, now occur in fewer and fewer places.

The last viable harvesting place in the Columbia River basin is at Willamette Falls. Like salmon, lampreys are in decline, dropping off rapidly in the last 40 to 50 years, harmed chiefly by dams and commercial fishing.

Scientists now are investigating whether decades of pollution in the Portland Harbor also may be harming the lampreys.

There is no hard evidence yet that the pollution has damaged the lampreys, in part because scientists have been slow to chart their decline.

But studies have found pollution contaminants in the tissues of mammals, birds, fish and benthic organisms - tiny critters that live close to the soil and are prey for fish.

Many tribal members, and scientists, believe the pollution very likely may have damaged lampreys as well - they spend much of their young life in the soils of the riverbed, where contaminants fall.

What is certain is this: As a group of environmental trustees set up by the federal government works to assess how nature has been harmed by the contamination, the liability for permanent damage to the tribes looms large.

Tribes may make claims for damages if they lose traditional foods or if the harming of a species erodes their cultural, spiritual and religious practices.

And at the heart of that potential damage are the strange creatures swarming in coolers near Willamette Falls on this afternoon - the lampreys.

Warm Springs tribal members simply call the lampreys 'eels.' But biologists are quick to say it is no ordinary eel. Lampreys have no teeth, in fact no bones, and they attack prey by dissolving it with flat, suckerlike mouths called oral disks.

For the tribal members in this group, the swarming mass soon will be dinner. But for American Indians with interests in the Willamette River, the simple meal of cooked eels means much more than food.

The six tribes - the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakima Nation, Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, Confederated Tribes of the Siletz Indians, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation and the Nez Perce Tribe - long have revered lampreys as part of their culture, and medicinal and spiritual life.

A species more than 200 million years old, older still than the tyrannosaurus rex, lampreys are part of an annual cycle of life that once brought berry-gathering tribes out of the mountains in early summer for the harvests. Their consumption is part of tribal ceremonies, and the eels are believed to have medicinal uses.

American Indians call lampreys 'the messenger of the spring chinook.' Also a species that migrates to the ocean and back, salmon follow closely behind the eels, which seemed to signal the bounty to come.

Scientists, as they probe the effects of contamination in the Portland Harbor, now believe lampreys may be a messenger of another kind. Because their juveniles are soil-bound and because lampreys are consumed up the food chain, the study of pollution's impact on the eels may provide data on the effects on other life in the Willamette River and to organisms that feed on lampreys - humans included.

The data is critical to cleaning up the Portland Harbor. In late 2000, the harbor was listed as a Superfund site, a federal program that cleans hazardous waste from areas where it could pose a threat to people and ecosystems. The government's Superfund study area is roughly from Sauvie Island to the Fremont Bridge and could stretch as far south as Oregon City.

Parts of the area have been harmed by more than a century of commercial shipping, runoff, sewage and industrial waste. They contain all range of pollutants, from metals to agrochemicals to petroleum.

Parallel to work concerning the control and cleanup of those pollutants is an inquiry into restoring the ecological health of the Willamette River by a group of environmental trustees set up by the Superfund program that includes the six tribes.

For the tribes, lampreys are a central concern.

As companies believed to be responsible for the Willamette River pollution slowly join the effort to study contaminant impacts to lampreys and other species, a very real fear lurks below the surface: That one day a court will hand down the blame for damage done to the tribes as a result of pollution in the Willamette River.

Science, time, politics at play

Tribes with interests in the Willamette River speak the Chinookan language, a trade language still in use that dates back to the days when the tribes bartered with one another using its combination of words, gestures and jargon.

The Yakima, Nez Perce, Umatilla, Warm Springs and Grand Ronde and Siletz Indians all speak Chinookan, as well as their own languages.

Over time, they learned the language of white people. They also learned the language of bureaucracy. And since 2000, they've learned the language of Superfund.

As part of the Superfund program, the six tribes, along with the state of Oregon and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, were named trustees of the natural resources in the Portland Harbor.

It will be their chore to assess environmental damage in the harbor as cleanup work moves forward. They are tasked with correcting potential harm to plants, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals and benthic organisms.

Exactly how the environment has been harmed by harbor pollution is one of three questions that needs answering before a harbor cleanup occurs. The others, addressing harm to neighboring property owners and to state lands, are perhaps simpler.

Righting damage done to nature takes science, time and, often, politics.

There are more than 100 property owners deemed potentially responsible for contaminating the Portland Harbor. Of the 69 first notified by the Environmental Protection Agency when the harbor was listed as a Superfund site, 10 of the largest polluters signed an early agreement with the government to fund an investigation into how to clean it up.

Four others have since joined the group, formally known as the Lower Willamette Group.

The members of the Lower Willamette Group are not the only landowners potentially liable for the harbor's problems. Eventually, every property owner in the Superfund site - past and present - will be liable for cleanup costs if proven responsible.

The EPA currently is steeped in a search to locate all of them and science will show who caused harm.

While the investigation moves forward, the Lower Willamette Group has pushed to bring more of the landowners - or past landowners - to the table. When the EPA set a deadline for the landowners to come willingly to the table late last year, it set off heated negotiations between some of Portland's top law firms.

A confidential funding agreement with a second group of landowners, called the Blue Water Group, brought money from its 24 additional parties to the pool.

When cleanup time comes, the Lower Willamette Group will be able to recover some costs from those who signed on late. Its members also are protected from potential litigation by other landowners under federal safeguards for parties that voluntarily fund Superfund studies.

For all of the polluters, the total cost of cleanup - unknown but likely very expensive - may be less a financial concern than the potential liability for harm to the area's natural resources, particularly those critical to the tribes.

Some boys start at 7

Tribal members say that all of the American Indians with interests or active rights in the Willamette River traditionally made eels part of their diet. They've always harvested them at the dangerous waterfalls, where the eels stick to rocks.

Today the tribes use the eels less as a staple and more as a ceremonial food, which is especially popular with elders.

According to the tribes, the eels also have medicinal uses and are considered an aphrodisiac. At feasts, they are eaten to honor milestones: a boy's first catch; a boy's first deer.

Suppah, the Warm Springs chairman, said these events mark 'the transition between boyhood and manhood, when they become hunters for their people.'

He said eels also honor deaths, births and marriage, and, for girls, similar rites of passage like the digging of certain roots.

On this Friday, as Suppah and the other fishermen pop the trunks on their cars, change into dry clothes and ready a collection of colorful coolers to divide the bounty, Suppah said it is his grandson's first lamprey harvest.

Some men in the group recall starting the harvests as young as 7; others began at 9, or 12.

'We try to bring the young fishermen down here and show them how to fish so we can keep our way of life alive,' Suppah said. 'It's important that we keep that fire lit and keep the young people aware of who they are and what they do and exercising that treaty right, keep exercising that way of life.'

That way of life was here, at Willamette Falls, long before the paper mills or the harbor contamination upriver.

Today, federal and state laws regard the falls as a 'usual and accustomed area' for the Warm Springs, Umatilla, Nez Perce and Yakima tribes, meaning it was a regular fishing ground 'before the outsiders came and put lines around everything,' Suppah said.

Since those lines fell into place so, too, have the problems for lampreys.

Like salmon, lampreys are a migrating species harmed by dams, which interfere with runs to and from the ocean, and by commercial fishing. Commercially, lampreys were used mainly for bait.

The similarities with salmon mostly end there. Lampreys get stuck in the fish ladders meant to aid their finned brethren's passage through dams. Scientists have been slow to survey their decline, and biologists have been slow to urge their protection. Lampreys twice have been rejected for an endangered species listing.

In Portland, little is known about how these bottom-feeding eels are affected by contaminated soils in the harbor.

Blaine Parker, a biologist with the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, describes the central issue this way: If you think of lampreys as a field of earthworms, sticking their small heads out of the bottom of the Willamette River, you have a pretty good picture of how lampreys spend their young life.

'They are the canary in the coal mine,' Parker said.

Because lampreys spend their first several years lying in sediment, where contamination tends to go, scientists who have studied the environment think they may be especially vulnerable to pollution. The eels are high in fat, to which pollutants easily bind.

Lampreys also are known to live on the bottom of the Portland Harbor, near the contaminated soil.

The EPA, tribes and government partners all say they are working toward a harbor cleanup plan that protects lampreys for the long term.

Food marks rite of passage

As the pile of dozens of squirming eels is divided among the fishermen on this Friday morning, Bruce Jim, a member of the Yakima Nation, talks about the fate of this batch.

Some will be used for feasts at Pi-ume-sha, the region's largest powwow, which was held late last month on the Warm Springs Reservation.

Others will be given to tribal elders who can no longer fish. Most will go home with the families of the members of this group, to be cooked and eaten.

They're cooked either roasted over an open fire, curled like pork rinds on a wood stove or sliced lengthwise and barbecued. They also can be eaten dried.

Jim said he can tell the difference between the eels harvested at Willamette Falls and those from other parts of the region. The Willamette Falls eels retain the taste of chlorine once used at the Blue Heron and West Linn paper mills, Jim said.

'When you cut the eel up you can smell it,' he said.

Fish advisories for the Portland Harbor caution women of childbearing age, particularly pregnant ones, to avoid eating fish caught there. Healthy people should limit their consumption to 8 ounces per meal, according to the advisories.

Crawfish from the McCormick and Baxter site near the railroad bridge - its own Superfund site - are considered too contaminated for consumption.

At the same time, many American Indians are making an effort to bring more traditional foods back to their diets. Roots and berries, game meat and salmon, as well as lampreys, are among them.

'To a tribal member whose life and sense of self is wholly associated with consumption of salmon, and consumption of lamprey, it doesn't make sense not to eat fish. What makes sense is you get the contaminants out of the fish and out of the ecosystem,' said Patti Howard, also a biologist with the fish commission and the agency's liaison for the harbor work.

Tasked with shaping upcoming studies that will inform the harbor's future cleanup plan, Howard said, 'It makes it important that the Portland Harbor cleanup is conducted in such a way that we don't leave the lamprey at risk.'

Meanwhile, tradition presses forward, along with the harbor cleanup.

'It's a long, drawn-out process. It takes a long time, like any other bureaucracy, but we'd be happy and pleased if it did get to happen,' said Suppah, standing on the riverbank as the coolers of eels are loaded into cars.

'These lamprey are more like bottom-feeder fish. All of these chemicals drop to the bottom, and so the food that we're eating is contaminated,' he said.

Despite that, Suppah believes in peace among all Oregonians and said the tribes have not decided whether a lawsuit over harm to lampreys or other natural resources ever will be necessary. He said the tribes won't consider such an action until all the facts about lampreys are known.

The chief concern for the Portland Harbor, he said, is that a cleaner environment someday will benefit all life on the Willamette River. And that the eels continue to run the river's waters and thrive.