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Meet, and like, Luna the lamprey


Federal agency tries social marketing to boost awareness

If ever an animal needed to hire a publicist, it’s the Pacific lamprey.

Even the nicest things you can say about the imperiled fish aren’t that nice: It’s very fatty. It’s only parasitic part of the time. It’s not invasive.

But, with the number of lamprey in the Pacific Northwest shrinking, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is trying something new to bring attention to this ancient species — the lamprey now has a Facebook page and a Twitter account.

Specifically, a fictional composite lamprey named Luna is now posting on Facebook, with updates such as, “I recently passed by the Sandy River.

Hmmm... I like the name, it brings back memories of when I was just an ammocoete!” And, “I’ve discovered that I am at Bonneville Dam today!”

April was the first month of a six-month project to help the lamprey make friends, following her progress as she migrates upriver. In spring and early summer, Pacific lamprey travel from the ocean into freshwater streams in order to spawn, much as salmon do. 

In fact, Pacific lamprey have quite a lot in common with Pacific salmon. They share much of the same habitat, and are suffering from many of the same environmental problems, such as lost and damaged aquatic habitat and impediments to their life cycle caused by dams.

Salmon and lamprey also rely on each other in a number of ways. Since lamprey are fattier and swim more slowly than salmon, they provide a “buffer” for salmon against predators. Salmon eat small lamprey early in the lamprey’s life cycle, and later, in the ocean, salmon are among the host fish that the lamprey attaches to during its parasitic phase.

The lamprey also feeds on rockfish, flatfish and pollock. The fish are not killed — the lamprey merely attaches itself for a while, by means of a suction-cup-like mouth lined with sharp teeth, and sucks the fish’s blood. 

“It’s kind of an unlikely mascot,” admits Sean Connolly, a communications specialist with the Fish & Wildlife Service. He’s hoping to humanize the creature a bit, and move it from yucky to “cool, yet creepy.”

After all, vampires are cool. Connolly hopes people can make a connection between Luna and characters like Edward Cullen, the teenage heartthrob vampire from the “Twilight” series.  

The social media campaign has three phases, starting with Luna’s migration up the Columbia River. Next will be an explanation of the spawning process. Spoiler alert: lamprey die after they lay their eggs.

As the next generation hatches, small larval lamprey burrow into the mud, where they can rest and feed on sediment for up to seven years. But in the fall, some of these larvae transform, developing eyes and teeth, and embarking for the Pacific Ocean. This timing, Connolly points out, creates an opportunity to get schools involved in the social media campaign at the start of the academic year.

Maybe. Ryan Lewis, a social media marketer and president of Bonfire Social Media, is skeptical. In his experience, teenagers aren’t likely to want a fish as part of their Facebook network. Younger kids might be a better audience, he says, but you have to be 13 to use Facebook.

Of course, Lewis says, Facebook is the easiest and cheapest way to get something out there. But the idea of “if you build it, they will come” isn’t really true for Facebook pages. The host has to be posting at a steady rate, adding links, and finding ways to be entertaining enough to elicit responses.

Luna is doing OK, he says, with a decent number of “likes.”

The Fish & Wildlife Service is doing the right thing, Lewis says, by posting in the first person, in Luna’s voice. But will it be successful? It depends on the goal, he says.

Luna is getting a little attention online, and, right now, some local press. But, “I can’t really see this saving the lamprey,” he says.

On the other hand, Luna now has more than 225 fans, and she’s adding five or ten a week — making her, demonstrably, the world’s most popular lamprey.