At Long Last, Lamprey Love

A bald eagle carries a sea lamprey snatched from the Connecticut River in Windsor, Vermont. MARY HOLLAND / NATURALLY CURIOUS

Nine years ago lamprey was referenced in a book review; then a couple years later, in a story about dam removal; and again a year later; and more recently with a book review and another dam removal story; today, a story about giving this creature its due:


Long Reviled as ‘Ugly,’ Sea Lampreys Finally Get Some Respect

The sucker-mouthed marine lamprey has been dismissed as grotesque and a threat to sport fish. But fisheries managers in New England and the Pacific Northwest are recognizing the ecological importance of lampreys in their native waters and are stepping up efforts to help them recover.

Native Americans catch lamprey, eel-like fish, at Willamette Falls, a 40-foot waterfall south of Portland, Ore., Friday, June 12, 2015. An ancient fish that’s a source of food for tribes in the Pacific Northwest, lampreys have been in drastic decline in recent decades. (AP Photo/Gosia Wozniacka)

“Thousands of sea lamprey are passed upstream [on the Connecticut River] each year. This is a predator that wiped out the Great Lakes lake-trout fishery. [Lampreys] literally suck the life out of their host fish, namely small-scale fish such as trout and salmon. The fish ladders ought to be used to diminish the lamprey.” So editorialized the Lawrence (Massachusetts) Eagle-Tribune on December 15, 2002.

If that’s true, why this spring is Trout Unlimited — the nation’s leading advocate for trout and salmon — assisting the Town of Wilton, Connecticut and an environmental group called “Save the [Long Island] Sound” in a project that will restore 10 miles of sea lamprey spawning habitat on the Norwalk River?

Why this summer will the first big returns from stocked Pacific lampreys — a species similar to sea lampreys — climb specially-designed lamprey ramps at Columbia River dams and surge into historical spawning habitat in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho?

And why, when the canal at Turners Falls on the Connecticut River is drawn down in September, will the Connecticut River Conservancy, Fort River Watershed Association, and the Biocitizen environmental school rescue stranded sea lamprey larvae?

The answer is ecological awakening — the gradual realization that, if the whole of nature is good, no part can be bad. In their native habitat, marine lampreys are “keystone species” supporting vast aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. They provide food for insects, crayfish, fish, turtles, minks, otters, vultures, herons, loons, ospreys, eagles, and hundreds of other predators and scavengers. Lamprey larvae, embedded in the stream bed, maintain water quality by filter feeding; and they attract spawning adults from the sea by releasing pheromones. Because adults die after spawning, they infuse sterile headwaters with nutrients from the sea. When marine lampreys build their communal nests, they clear silt from the river bottom, providing spawning habitat for countless native fish, especially trout and salmon…

Read the whole story here.

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