Four Columbia River treaty tribes last week released what they say is the most comprehensive restoration plan for Pacific lamprey in the basin.
Approved Dec. 16 by the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission’s four member tribes -- -- the Umatilla, Warm Springs, Yakama and Nez Perce -- the “Tribal Pacific Lamprey Restoration Plan” sets as goals a halt to the decline of lamprey and the re-establishment of lamprey populations using a wide range of mainstem and tributary actions throughout the fishes’ entire life cycle.
The plan seeks to improve mainstem and tributary passage for juvenile and adult lamprey, restore and protect mainstem and tributary habitat and reduce toxic contaminants. It also wants consideration of the use of an artificial propagation program to aid re-colonization throughout the Columbia-Snake river basin.
The plan is a product of the efforts of many tribal and non-tribal biologists, policy representatives, and independent scientists throughout the Pacific Northwest. It addresses many regional comments on the draft tribal lamprey restoration plan from tribes, public utilities, federal, state and county agencies, independent scientists and the general public.
“Time is not a luxury that lamprey have so we must act now,” said Paul Lumley, CRITFC executive director. “This plan represents the best of both situations. It allows the tribes to actively address the issues facing lamprey and develop a better understanding of the issues. We can’t sit on our hands and study them into extinction.”
Appearing in the fossil record 450 million years ago, Pacific lamprey are the oldest fish species found in the Columbia River system. A significant subsistence and cultural resource for tribal communities, Pacific lamprey numbers have plummeted in recent years.
Once returning to the Columbia River and its tributaries by the millions, approximately 48,000 returned to Bonneville Dam in 2011. Lamprey returns were at an all-time low of 23,000 in 2010.
Lamprey, often called “eels,” were plentiful in many Columbia basin waters, including the Walla Walla River, Asotin Creek, Clearwater River tributaries, the South Fork of the Salmon River, Swan Falls, the upper portions of the Yakima River and the tributaries of the upper Columbia, according to the plan’s executive summary.
“Now many of these great rivers have no eels or at best remnant numbers,” the plan says.
Lamprey are an important component to the Columbia Basin ecosystem, says the plan. Pacific lamprey are significant prey for a number of other species, provide marine nutrients to tributary ecosystems and are often viewed as an indicator species for ecological challenges facing other species like salmon.
The Pacific lamprey is eel-like in shape (but is not related to the eel) and has dark bluish-gray or dark brown scaleless skin, according to information posted by the Bonneville Power Administration, which has over the years funded lamprey restoration projects aimed at mitigating for impact to the species from the federal Columbia/Snake hydro system.
Lamprey have no true bones or jaws, and can reach up to 30 inches long and weigh over a pound. Lamprey mouths are down-turned for sucking and lined with sharp, rasping teeth.
Like salmon, Pacific lamprey are anadromous. After spending two to three years in the ocean where they live as parasites preying on larger mammals and fish, they return to freshwater to spawn. Lamprey do not cause permanent damage to their host fish.
Lamprey ascend rivers by swimming upstream briefly, then attaching to rocks and resting.
Unlike salmon, Pacific lamprey spend well over half of their total life cycle in freshwater. The adult female Pacific lamprey lays tens of thousands of extremely small eggs in a nest built in a gravel or sandy streambed, then dies within a few days after spawning.
The young lamprey hatch after two to three weeks, burrow into mud where they live in the larval stage for four to six years and eventually emerge as juveniles averaging about 4 1/2 inches in length. They migrate to the ocean during late winter or early spring.
Some researchers suggest that large populations of adult lamprey may have been a buffer for migrating adult salmon from predation by marine mammals. Seals would have found lamprey a more appealing food source than salmon because they travel in schools, are easier to catch than salmon and, pound-for-pound offer a higher source of calories.
“Lamprey deserve every opportunity to thrive in the Columbia River system,” said Lumley. “Their survival depends on us. Now is the time for us to step up and provide for the ones that have always provided for us.”
The plan’s objectives aim to address lamprey critical uncertainties through collaboration and cooperation with other regional entities, such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Geological Survey, Environmental Protection Agency, the Bureau of Reclamation and several universities.
“Wherever possible, implementation of Plan actions will take advantage of collaborative cost sharing,” the executive summary says.
“Plan objectives also contain specific actions to address known limiting factors and threats such as impaired adult passage at mainstem dams and juvenile impingement on irrigation screens,” the plan says.
The CRITFC plan includes six objectives with the first two -- improving mainstem and tributary passage and habitat – being of primary and urgent importance.
“Actions aimed at improving juvenile and adult passage must be implemented immediately,” the plan says.
Actions to increase lamprey populations within the Columbia River basin through propagation, reintroduction, translocation, and augmentation should also be implemented, according to objective 3. And improving water quality, reducing contaminant levels, and obtaining a better understanding of how toxic and contaminant accumulation, effects lamprey at all life stages is also important (objective 4).
Effective public education and outreach regarding lamprey, particularly addressing lamprey status and highlighting the potential consequences of failing to implement restoration actions, may be vital to their long-term survival (Objective 5).
And research and monitoring directed towards understanding lamprey abundance and distribution, life history, habitat and water quality needs will allow for adaptive management as Pacific lamprey and associated restoration actions are better understood (Objective 6). Special attention must be focused on the impact of contaminants, climate change and human population growth, the plan says.
“The region must make a significantly greater effort in a very short time frame if Pacific lampreys are to be restored,” the plan concludes. “Thus, implementing this Plan must be an active collaboration -- it lives only if the tribes can gain the participation, cooperation, coordination and commitment of federal and state agencies, the public, NGOs and FERC license holders.”
The Tribal Pacific Lamprey Restoration Plan is available on the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission’s website at www.critfc.org/lamprey