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Slimy, parasitic fish are key to Oregon ecosystems, but they're fast disappearing

PMG PHOTO: COURTNEY VAUGHN - Gabe Sheoships (left) and Maureen Hosty (right) transfer two Pacific lamprey fish to their new home in a tank at the Cottonwood School of Civics and Science. The lamprey will serve as ambassadors for the species at the school, to help foster conservation education. As Maureen Hosty and Sarah Anderson wheeled a large Coleman cooler down a concrete path toward a riverbank, suspense was already building.

Inside, two adult lamprey slithered around the plastic container. Would they try to climb out of the cooler once the lid was lifted? Handlers warned it could happen.

Within minutes, dozens of young students at the Cottonwood School of Civics and Science in Southwest Portland lined up to learn about the prehistoric jawless fish and meet the slimy new school pets.

Two Pacific lamprey will serve as ambassadors on loan from the Umatilla Tribe at the Southwest Portland charter school, in a partnership program with Oregon State University Portland 4H.

"The tribes in this area all value lamprey, or eels," Gabe Sheoships, executive director of Friends of Tryon Creek and member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation. Lamprey are a "keystone species" and considered a first food of native tribes in the Northwest.

Lamprey, often confused for eels, are prehistoric fish whose bodies are noted by their disc-shaped heads, sharp teeth and three eyes. Their bodies are made of cartilage, and like catfish, they have no scales, rather, slimy smooth skin with gills and dorsal fins.

COURTESY PHOTO: OREGON ZOO - The Pacific lamprey, shown here, is known for its sharp teeth and disc-shaped head. Lamprey survive by glomming onto prey and sucking out nutrients. The primitive, parasitic fish are known for their gross and downright haunting appearance, as well as their survival methods—they suck the nutrients out of their prey by latching their mouths on and suctioning. They're older than dinosaurs, native to the Pacific Northwest and like salmon, they're anadromous, meaning they migrate from freshwater to the ocean. What makes them eerie and distinct is also what makes them so important. Lamprey have barely evolved in their more than 450 million years of existence, but now, the fish are considered a species of concern by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

PMG PHOTO: COURTNEY VAUGHN - Gabe Sheoships holds a lamprey while it suctions a student's hand at the Cottonwood School of Civics and Science in Portland.Factors like pollution, predation, loss of food sources and dams have threatened the Pacific lamprey in Pacific Northwest waterways.

"Lamprey are actually the oldest living fish species, but there's not that many left." Sheoships said. He called the fish, "our oldest relatives who we're all working to protect and preserve."

Learning about tribal history has come into sharper focus in Oregon since 2017, with the passage of Senate Bill 13. The Tribal History/Shared History bill requires the state to teach Native American curriculum in Oregon's public schools and provide funding for place-based education.

Educators at the Cottonwood School, a public charter school in the South Portland neighborhood, said teaching about the history and culture of the region is a hallmark of the school.

"As a place-based school, it's part of our mission, to really connect kids with the place where they are and you can't do that without doing Indigenous studies," said Sarah Anderson, place-based educator at Cottonwood.

Not to be confused with the lamprey that now inhabit the Great Lakes, Pacific lamprey are native to Oregon and "play a vital ecological and cultural role," according to USFWS.

Maureen Hosty is with OSU and helped get the ancient eel-like fish to the school site. She said the university is working with students across the Portland metro region to educate them about the unique aquatic creatures and talk about conservation efforts afoot.

"One of the most important things you can do to help protect these fish is to spread the word about them," Hosty told a group of roughly two dozen Cottonwood students. She said part of the ambassador program and 4H partnership is an educational component.

"Youth voice and action, now more than ever, is needed to help raise awareness about this important fish," Hosty said in a media announcement of the ambassador program's kick-off. "Participating students will complete online multimedia modules to learn about this fish and then create an action plan to help raise awareness about this little-known fish."

Jeremy Monroe has been documenting Pacific Northwest aquatic life through his nonprofit organization, Freshwaters Illustrated. Monroe has paid special attention to the Pacific lamprey and its connection to indigenous tribes, producing a 25-minute documentary-style film called "The Lost Fish."

"They're a fish that not many people know about," Monroe said of the lamprey. "They're kind of a common ancestor for most of us in our neighborhoods and communities. They're a big part of the ecosystem."

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