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Harvesting a prehistoric delicacy

Native American tribes once again head to Willamette Falls in search of the eel-like lamprey

REVIEW PHOTO: PATRICK MALEE - Harvesters from the Yakama Nation and Nez Perce Tribe were joined by researchers last week for the annual lamprey harvest at Willamette Falls. REVIEW PHOTO: PATRICK MALEE - Harvesters must duck their heads under the roaring falls and reach for the lampreys, which climb the falls during spawning season. To participate in a lamprey harvest at Willamette Falls is not unlike travelling to a different world.

You wade through a ripping current until you’re 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.

“It’s 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 you’re just trying to feel for the fish, and you’re 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 that’s not to mention the lamprey's appearance — long and eel-like, with a wide suction-cup mouth that wouldn’t 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.

REVIEW PHOTO: PATRICK MALEE - Zach Penney (left) and Bobby Begay pose with some of their catch. REVIEW PHOTO: PATRICK MALEE - Lampreys are prehistoric creatures whose time on the planet dates back at least 400 million years - even before the dinosaurs. “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 aren’t 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. “They’re almost identical, until they’re 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, people’s homes,” Thompson says. “They’ll be saved for the year, and they’ll find their way to naming ceremonies, funerals and various feasts.”

REVIEW PHOTO: PATRICK MALEE - Biologist Ralph Lampman lifts a bag full of lampreys onto the rocks. It was Lampman's first time participating in a harvest. As for cooking methods, Thompson says it’s a matter of preference.

“There are various ways,” she says. “Some really like it smoked, and the best I’ve ever had was cooked over an open fire. Because lamprey are very oily, they have a very high lipid content, so it’s 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 it’s a special place for all the tribes,” Lampman says. “I’m not a tribal member, but to be able to experience what they do and learn from them, it means a lot.”

Patrick Malee can be reached at 503-636-1281 Ext. 106 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..