Harvesting a prehistoric delicacy
Native American tribes once again head to Willamette Falls in search of the eel-like lamprey
To participate in a lamprey harvest at Willamette Falls is not unlike travelling to a different world.
You wade through a ripping current until youre standing just feet away from the second most powerful waterfall in North America. Your ears are ringing, eyes stinging from the mist and then the moment comes to stick your head directly underneath the falls and reach for prehistoric creatures as they inch their way upstream.
Its a really amazing experience, says biologist Ralph Lampman, who participated in his first harvest last week. The sound all you hear is the waterfall dropping on your back, and youre just trying to feel for the fish, and youre in a different world completely.
The extraterrestrial analogy is fitting for a species that has been around for about 450 million years, predating even the dinosaurs. And thats not to mention the lamprey's appearance long and eel-like, with a wide suction-cup mouth that wouldnt be out of place in a sci-fi horror movie.
Hundreds of millions of years after they arrived on earth, lamprey became a tremendously important subsistence food for Northwest Native American tribes, who harvested at Willamette Falls and all throughout the Columbia River basin.
Until recently, that is; now, the Willamette Falls are considered the last stronghold for the traditional harvests.
The tribes have always come here to harvest, says Sara Thompson, public information officer with the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. Umatilla, Yakama, Nez Perce and Warm Springs (tribes) have always come to the Willamette Falls to harvest, but this is the last place really to harvest. The populations just arent there in the mainstem Columbia to support any sort of harvest.
And so it was that in the early morning hours of June 17, harvesters from the Yakama Nation and Nez Perce Tribe made their way to Willamette Falls, which border West Linn and Oregon City on the Willamette River. The harvesters were also joined by researchers from the Yakama Nation Fisheries, who were there to study sex ratios of the lamprey, among other things.
The sex of the lamprey is really hard to tell, Lampman says. Theyre almost identical, until theyre ready to spawn then you can tell.
After several hours, the harvesters came away with several large sacks filled with 194 lamprey. Following harvests, lamprey are frozen and eventually make their way through every layer of the tribal community.
They will be sent back to tribal communities, to longhouses, to the churches, to the elders, peoples homes, Thompson says. Theyll be saved for the year, and theyll find their way to naming ceremonies, funerals and various feasts.
As for cooking methods, Thompson says its a matter of preference.
There are various ways, she says. Some really like it smoked, and the best Ive ever had was cooked over an open fire. Because lamprey are very oily, they have a very high lipid content, so its really important to cook them in a manner that allows them to lose a lot of that oil in the process.
Though Willamette Falls remains a steady source of lamprey, the overall picture is dire. Where 400,000 adult lamprey were found at the Bonneville Dam about 60 years ago, a count in 2015 registered less than 20,000. A Tribal Lamprey Restoration Plan was crafted by the tribes, but the future remains uncertain for the prehistoric creatures.
We live in a very salmon-centric world, Thompson says. If you have a lamprey working its way through a fish ladder and it hits a corner on a fish ladder, when the suction is broken it will send a lamprey back down stream.
Lampman, for his part, participated in the harvest primarily for research purposes, but it was also a rare chance to experience an ancient tradition.
This is one of the few remaining harvest sites, and its a special place for all the tribes, Lampman says. Im not a tribal member, but to be able to experience what they do and learn from them, it means a lot.