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Is the Pacific Lamprey slipping into history?

That’s the fear of people who have studied the ancient eel-like creature that crawls up the slippery, wet rocks around the Willamette Falls in Oregon City.

Dr. Carl Schreck of OSU and Gabe Sheoships of the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission will speak on the plight and progress of the lamprey of the Willamette, Saturday, July 21, at the Museum of the Oregon Territory, 221 Tumwater Drive, Oregon City.

The 1 p.m. program is free and open to the public.

The Pacific Lamprey migrates from Oregon’s freshwater rivers to the saltwater sea and back, to spawn and die. They have been a nutritional source for many cultures throughout the world, including the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde.

They are also eaten by animals that also eat young salmon, such as sea lions. Sometimes the lamprey serve as a kind of meal buffer, protecting salmon as predators eat them PHOTO COURTESY CLACKAMAS COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY - This historic photo of lamprey eels at Willamette Falls, taken on July 13, 1913, shows how plentiful the eels were a century ago.

The Wild Willamette History program on Lamprey is presented by the Clackamas County Historical Society in conjunction with July’s traditional lamprey harvest at Willamette Falls. Scientists and laymen are fascinated with the relationship between lamprey, salmon, Native Americans, hydro-electric plants, water levels and dams.

Take care of the water

Once plentiful, lamprey are struggling to maintain minimal populations in Oregon’s waterways. A 1913 photo at the Clackamas County Historical Society’s Museum of the Oregon Territory shows the boulders of Willamette Falls covered with thousands of healthy lamprey, which hurl themselves up the waterfall, adhering to the rocks to rest.

In Latin, the name lamprey means “rock licker.”

Although petitions to declare them endangered have failed, lamprey are clearly threatened. They are very sensitive to warming water temperature, hydroelectric dams, fish ladders, pesticides and pollution — including paper mill dioxins. They need clean water to detect the pheromone trails that lead them to breed.

In the past four decades, Bonneville Dam annual counts of lamprey dropped from millions to only 20,000.

Schreck with the Oregon Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, studies fish from their DNA to their behavior. Much of his work focuses on stress and fish well-being.

“If we take good care of water, we’ll automatically take good care of fish, agriculture and urban environments,” he said.

Worldwide delicacy

Dark blue or brown, lamprey are surprisingly good swimmers and jumpers, and grow up to 30 inches long. Although people think of them as parasites or “bloodsuckers,” they are actually benign filter-feeders, living on tiny organisms that live in the rivers.

No discussion of lamprey goes without attention to how creepy they appear. They tenaciously use their suction-cup, jawless mouths and circular rows of tiny teeth to grind through the skin of their hosts, from which they catch a free ride on the open sea.

The same marine mammals or fish that prey on young lamprey may find them annoyingly attached to their bodies for several years. The lamprey then detach from their whale or salmon hosts, and return upstream to spawn and die.

To add to their culinary “appeal,” lamprey are scales and slimy, like snails or okra.

With one nostril and a cartilaginous backbone, the lamprey is both weird and wiggly. In spite of all this, and an oily taste compared to “burnt tires,” they were once a worldwide delicacy.

“Because the state doesn’t sell licenses to fish for lamprey, they have for some time been of value to the tribes of the Willamette and Columbia basins,” said Kelly Dirksen, fish and wildlife program manager for the Grand Ronde Confederated Tribes.

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