SALEM, Ore. (CN) – Photos from the early 1900s show lamprey – an ancient, eel-like fish, covering the rocks at Willamette Falls like a wriggling shag carpet. But like salmon, lamprey numbers dropped dramatically with the erection of dozens of dams in the Pacific Northwest. It’s a problem that Native American tribes have been working to correct for decades. And on Friday, Oregon followed suit, approving its first state-wide restoration plan.
Lamprey are older than the dinosaurs. After surviving four mass extinctions, they began to decline at alarming rates in the 1960s. Having co-evolved with so many other species over their 450 million years on earth, they occupy a critical spot in the food chain.
Like salmon, lamprey migrate from the streams and rivers of their birth out to the ocean, and return to freshwater to spawn. When they die, their decomposing bodies replenish headwaters and the forests that surround them with nutrients from the ocean.
Their floating eggs feed young salmon each spring just as they are preparing to swim to the ocean. A fatty meal for 41 different species of predators, lamprey also relieve the increasing pressure on salmon as a food source for sea lions, sturgeon and fish-eating birds.
“This plan recognizes that lamprey is important – something that tribes have recognized for millennia,” Ben Clemens, Oregon’s statewide lamprey coordinator told the commission.
Adopted unanimously on Friday by the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife, the Coastal, Columbia & Snake Conservation Plan for Lampreys in Oregon describes early work done to recover their dwindling numbers.
Those efforts, the document says, were launched by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council “due to tribal concerns,” and coincided with lamprey conservation plans organized by tribes. In 2004, the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission organized the first Lamprey Summit, which was the basis for the regional conservation plans that have followed.
Work by the Nez Perce Tribe has reestablished reproducing lamprey populations in tributaries of the Snake and Clearwater basins. The Yakama Nation and the Umatilla Tribe led efforts to determine best practices for their artificial propagation.
And the Umatilla used funding from Bonneville Power Administration to improve lamprey passage past dams and reintroduce them in the Umatilla Basin – taking lamprey from functional extinction there to annual returns by the thousands.
Oregon, meanwhile, has taken steps to restore specific lamprey populations since the early efforts of the 1990s. But it wasn’t until 2016 that the state hired Clemens as state-wide lamprey coordinator to oversee production of the plan approved Friday.
The effort is dwarfed by the billions spent in the Pacific Northwest to recover salmon. While area tribes have always been worried about the decline of lamprey, state officials and the general public have been slower to rally.
Some say it’s an issue of optics. It could be the slime. Or the circular sucker mouths ringed by sharp teeth.
“Let’s face it, lamprey is not the sexiest species in the world,” said Mike Matylewich, fisheries management director for the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission.
Opponents of Oregon’s new plan argued in public comments that Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife shouldn’t implement the plan, claiming there is too much we don’t know about the life stages of lamprey, their populations and distribution across Oregon.
“The term ‘unknown’ actually appears 86 times throughout the plan,” Oregon Forest & Industries Council, Oregon Farm Bureau and the pro-pesticide trade group Oregonians for Food & Shelter wrote in an Oct. 16 filing.
Matylewich said those kinds of comments feed into the old mindset that lamprey are a nuisance fish.
“This is the difference between tribal culture and others,” Matylewich said. “For others, if you can’t sell it or recreational fish for it, it’s a nuisance species and there’s not much of either of those activities for lamprey.”
In its plan, ODFW wrote that despite those unknowns, lamprey are struggling to survive. Wide-scale threats will only worsen due to climate change and increases in the human population, the department said.
For Doc Slyter, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Siuslaw and Lower Umpqua, the Oregon plan is a win.
“When you have an animal that has been around for so long and is disappearing so fast, you need to find out what’s going on because we are next on the list,” Slyter said Friday. “The tribes for many years have been trying to bring that forward to the public. Today, with the passage of this plan – it’s the first step.”