Tribal tradition of harvesting lamprey lives on at Willamette Falls

By Erik Robinson
Oregon City, Oregon (AP) 7-09

At the base of the basalt-black face of Willamette Falls, Bobby Begay plunged face-down beneath the surface.

Hooking his legs to a rock outcropping, Begay submerged himself for a solid 10 seconds as he felt around underwater nooks and crannies earlier this week. Finally, he popped out of the water with a gasp. In his right hand, he clutched a wildly squirming length of gray cartilage and muscle.

With one swift motion, he deposited the lamprey into a net.

Begay, a 40-year-old member of the Yakama Nation who lives at Celilo Village along the Columbia River near The Dalles, Ore., said he has fished for lamprey “as long as I can remember.” American Indians once plucked lamprey off Celilo Falls, until the legendary gathering place was inundated beneath the reservoir created by The Dalles Dam in 1958.

These days, tribes from throughout the Columbia basin converge at Willamette Falls to carry on the tribal tradition.

Some travel hundreds of miles to catch lamprey.

Even though the seagoing creature’s fossil record dates back 350 million years – enduring the coming and going of ice ages, continental drift and predators that predate the dinosaurs – researchers say mankind’s modern imprint on the environment has caused what one termed an “alarming drop” in the population of the eel-like fish. It’s not listed as threatened or endangered, but federal wildlife managers said that’s at least partly due to a lack of information about its distribution and population.

“We’ve seen dramatic declines in the return of adult lamprey up and down the coast,” said Howard Schaller, project leader of the Columbia River fisheries office for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in Vancouver.

Willamette Falls is one of the few places it’s possible to continue to catch the ancient fish.

Begay piloted his driftboat upstream toward the falls, knifing past a couple of sport fishing boats angling for summer chinook. A hint of rotten-egg smell of sulfur dioxide hung in the air from the paper mills that loomed high above both banks of the river. Begay maneuvered through a ripple of whitewater into a restricted area below the falls, nosing his boat up against the lee side of a jumble of rocks.

He flung an anchor into the jumble and stepped out.

The first thing to know about fishing for lamprey: You’re going to get wet. Begay wore swimming shorts, tennis shoes and a life jacket for flotation. Younger family members, including his 16-year-old son, Steven, made do with swimsuits and T-shirts.

The other thing to know: Catching lamprey is more like hunting than fishing.

“One thing we teach these boys is never to spit into the water,” Begay said. “Once they smell that spit, once they smell your spit or body oil, they just disappear.”

They’ve disappeared from some areas altogether, according to a recent conservation plan authored by researchers with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. The number of lamprey counted at Bonneville Dam has bounced around over time, but the general trend has been downward.

Last year’s count of about 14,500 was the lowest ever, down from 350,000 in the 1960s.

Researchers believe the creature has declined because of the same kinds of habitat degradation that has afflicted salmon and steelhead. Lamprey larvae live for three to seven years in shallow creek bottoms, filter-feeding on organic material and algae until they’re ready to migrate to the ocean. They suffer from streams constricted and polluted by the effects of urbanization, agriculture, logging and pollution.

Lamprey also don’t handle dams very well.

“As old and ancient a fish as they are, they apparently aren’t very good swimmers,” said Diana Fredlund, a spokeswoman for the Army Corps of Engineers.

Salmon and steelhead easily ascend the fish ladders at Bonneville Dam, but the fast-moving water doesn’t appear to suit lamprey very well.

Roughly half of adult lamprey don’t ascend the ladders at all, Schaller said. Among those that do make it past the dam, biologists suspect the cumbersome trip saps energy necessary to spawn successfully.

So, the Army Corps of Engineers is spending $1.6 million on a series of improvements to the ladder at Bonneville. A series of bullet-shaped vertical posts enable the creature to latch on with its suction mouth as it advances toward the so-called “lamp ramp” – a network of steel chutes designed to guide lamprey past the dam in relatively low flow of water.

If it works, the corps will duplicate the technology at The Dalles and John Day dams.

Boosting the population of lamprey may have a beneficial effect on the overall river environment, Schaller said. Lamprey nourish the entire food web, from bugs to bears, with nutrients from the ocean. “The lamprey biomass would have been huge,” Schaller said, “so that contribution is being lost.”

Biologists suspect the high oil content of lamprey may entice sea lions that have instead turned to devouring one salmon after another below Bonneville Dam.

Human consumption of lamprey remains something of an acquired taste.

“I tasted one once,” Schaller said. “It had a very distinct taste. They’re very chewy. You end up chewing it for quite a while.”

One tribal elder, waiting to meet Begay at the Oregon City boat ramp, described the preparations simply. Gut it, cut off the head, cut off the tail, and cook it over an open fire.

“Cook until they’re burnt, then cook ‘em another 20 minutes,” he said.

Once a year, from June 1 through July 31, the state of Oregon permits fishermen to pluck lamprey from the rocks at Willamette Falls. As long as it’s for personal consumption, rather than sturgeon bait or other secondary uses, fishermen can take as many lamprey as they can find. By midday, Begay had gathered about 200 to bring back to the various families at Celilo.

Chris Kern, a fisheries manager for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the permits are predominantly issued to Columbia River and coastal tribes.

Begay is carrying on a tradition.

“My grandpa brought me, and now I’m bringing my kids to Willamette Falls,” he said.

On the Net: History of lampreys




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