An ode to the Pacific lamprey : Short Wave Pacific lamprey may have lived on Earth for about 450 million years. When humans came along, a deep relationship formed between Pacific lamprey and Native American tribes across the western United States. But in the last few decades, tribal elders noticed that pacific lamprey populations have plummeted, due in part to habitat loss and dams built along the Columbia River. So today, an introduction to Pacific lamprey: its unique biology, cultural legacy in the Pacific Northwest and the people who are fighting to save it.

To learn more about tribal-led efforts to restore the lamprey, read the Tribal Pacific Lamprey Restoration Plan and watch the documentary The Lost Fish.

An ode to the Pacific lamprey

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You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.


SHORT WAVE producer Rebecca Ramirez here with our former intern, Indi Khera. And today, we want to start by sharing a story from the Cow Creek Band of the Umpqua Tribe of Indians about how the Pacific lamprey, traditionally called an eel, lost his bones in a betting game with salmon.

KELLY COATES: The game was one of sticks, as your fathers play, betting on how many roads or furred switches the other holds. The eel, who was very lucky, won for a long time. Then he became careless. He bet recklessly. The salmon began to win. The eel lost all he had won. Then he lost all he had of wealth. When he lost everything, he bet his bones. Again, the salmon won. That is why, to this day, the eel has no bones.


INDI KHERA, BYLINE: And Kelly Coates knows all about the lamprey's lack of bones. She's a fisheries biologist for and member of the Cow Creek Band of the Umpqua Tribe of Indians out in southwestern Oregon. She says Pacific lampreys look like eels but are actually a different fish, only a distant relative of eels. They've got a pair of eyes, some breathing holes on either side, a little sucker for a mouth, no scales and no paired fins or jaws, like most fish today.

RAMIREZ: A very ancient evolutionary blueprint for a very ancient fish - one of the oldest living fish on Earth, appearing in the fossil record about 450 million years ago.

ELIZABETH BRYANT: (Through interpreter) The lamprey has been important.

KHERA: Because of this, it has a long...

BRYANT: (Through interpreter) Lamprey was our first food.

KHERA: ...Intimate history with many Native American tribes in the Western U.S.

BRYANT: (Through interpreter) The lamprey was our medicine. The lamprey helped us to survive.

RAMIREZ: Elizabeth Bryant's another member of the Cow Creek Band of the Umpqua tribe of Indians. Her job is to learn and teach Takelma, the tribe's language, and she therefore knows a lot about the lamprey's cultural significance.

KHERA: And like so many who work closely with Pacific lamprey, Elizabeth and Kelly feel a personal responsibility to the fish. Dried lamprey was the only medicine to soothe Kelly's teething daughter, and she always remembers this one moment, years ago, when she was out doing research. She reached out for a lamprey, and it wrapped itself around her arm gently and seemed to stare up at her, to recognize her back, she says.

RAMIREZ: They're magical moments that tie lamprey and people together over the course of a life. And Native Americans have always lived across the lamprey's range, from Alaska down to Mexico and inland to Idaho. But Pacific lamprey populations have plummeted over the years.

KHERA: Today on the show, the intersection of conservation biology, cultural identity and legacy, because tribal elders, not U.S. government scientists, were the ones who raised the alarm about the Pacific lamprey.

RAMIREZ: It's a story that reminds us that the experts are often the people with a deep connection to place and to ecosystem. I'm Rebecca Ramirez.

KHERA: And I'm Indi Khera. You're listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.


RAMIREZ: Oregon has mountains, dense forests and these waterfalls that form an expansive canyons and gorges. One of the most notable in Oregon is the Columbia River Gorge. It has these breathtaking views that go on for miles into the Cascades, all centered around the Columbia River. There are woods with black bears and bobcats and trees like Douglas firs, hemlocks and oaks.

KHERA: The river itself is home to fish like sturgeon and well-known species of salmon and the Pacific lamprey.

RAMIREZ: The lamprey is older than any of this - the other animals, the trees, the river, even the mountains - even older than dinosaurs.

KHERA: Back when the Western coast of the United States was Idaho. Tiktaalik, the famous fossil fish marking the transition of fish from water onto land, lived around 375 million years ago. At that point, lampreys had already been eeling (ph) around for millions of years. They're so old they don't even have jaws, which makes them one of only two types of living jawless fish left.

RAMIREZ: So as Christina Wang, a lamprey biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, will tell you...

CHRISTINA WANG: Pretty much anything that you can imagine the Earth has gone through, they have lived through. And that's really one of the remarkable things, is that they have lived through those mass extinction events that have killed off many other species.

KHERA: And the lamprey remains pretty much in its original form.

RAMIREZ: If it ain't broke, don't fix it. And functionally, the lamprey ain't broke. There's a lot scientists are still learning about lamprey at every stage of its life, and that's partly because a lot of non-Natives consider them trash fish - not interesting to sports fishers and until recently, not generally thought to be worth researchers' time. And some say we'll never know all lamprey secrets. But one thing researchers are sure of - lamprey are deeply ecologically important.

KHERA: And the lamprey's well-honed life cycle begins at the river beds.

COATES: Pacific lamprey create a nest together, so they're - imagine the bottom of a stream, and there's rocks in the bottom of the stream, and males and females - they move around rocks with their suction mouths.

RAMIREZ: All to make a home for their tens of thousands of babies that will grow in the bottoms of these nests for a few weeks. They make so many because at all stages of life, including this one, lamprey are a huge food source for many predators in the local food web. And when you're that integral, one survival strategy is to make a lot of babies because comparatively few will survive to hatch.

KHERA: The ones that do hatch look an awful lot like smooth little eyelashes. And these kiddos strike out on their own, wandering downstream.

RAMIREZ: Then they'll spend up to 10 years buried in the mud to finish growing. When they emerge back into the world, they have their big googly eyes and teeth that make up their iconic sucker. And at this point, they're filter-feeding, really stirring up and cleaning the nutrients out, adding oxygen.

KHERA: Then eventually, they'll chart a big road trip, heading out to sea. Out in the Pacific, they'll hitch rides on whales and big fish, sucking on them for nutrients. There's a lot researchers are still figuring out about this and all stages of life. But researchers like Christina and Kelly think lamprey are just cruising through the Pacific...

RAMIREZ: Sometimes as far as Japan.

KHERA: ...For up to a few years. And then some of them will head back to the rivers along the West Coast. If they're lucky, they make it back to a river, find a mate and start the whole cycle all over again.

RAMIREZ: Which is really lucky for the ecosystems in the riverbeds because when the lamprey make it back to create the next generation and die soon after, their final act is to share the nutrients they picked up in the ocean - you know, since they decompose - circle of life. And speaking of the circle of life, lamprey are a very, very nutrient-dense fish, and so they're the preferred meal of a lot of predators, including humans.

KHERA: Historically, when the lamprey head to the rivers to spawn each year, they're harvested by local tribes. Lamprey navigate the river by suctioning to surfaces, inching their way up.

COATES: Young men would go into the falls, and they would pull the lamprey off of the rocks and the waterfalls. And then they would toss them. And then, after the young men would pull them off of the falls, they would bite the head of the lamprey to stun it, and then they would throw it up on the bank, where the tribal women would collect them and go and process them.

RAMIREZ: And it's because of this harvesting tradition and the accompanying feasts and ceremonies that tribal elders in the '60s and '70s noticed that populations were plummeting. Kelly says it used to be - say, 60 years ago - people could count 400,000 lamprey in a given year. These days, that number's just in the low tens of thousands, and so elders knew that they were in danger of losing this fish forever.

KHERA: Tribes of the Columbia River came to the U.S. government, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and asked them to help the lamprey. And leading up to this, there had been a separate effort from NGOs to put the lamprey on the endangered species list. But among other things, there just wasn't enough data to get them on. And because they live and migrate all over the Pacific Ocean, it's harder to figure out what needed protection.

RAMIREZ: The lamprey are what's known as a tribal trust species, which means the U.S. government has a duty to help tribes protect them because they're a culturally significant resource. So tribes can partner with organizations like Fish and Wildlife. And with Native tribes leading the efforts, together, they host summits and chart a path for weaving together research and management of lamprey populations across the whole region.

KHERA: And that ultimately led to signing a conservation agreement and the formation of the Pacific Lamprey Conservation Initiative, PLCI for short, which is the group Christina and Kelly both work with. It's a shared initiative between tribes like the Cow Creek Band of the Umpqua Tribe of Indians and the Fish and Wildlife Service, and Christina will be the first to tell you the tribes are the key to the lamprey initiative's success.

WANG: It's a really neat and inspiring thing that we have that constant presence and reminder from the tribes in all of the work that we do. And it just reminds you, like, what's important and why we're doing it. And it's important for the fish, and it's really important for these people and their culture.

RAMIREZ: As for why lamprey populations declined in the first place, there really isn't one silver-bullet reason, as Kelly puts it. Lamprey face multiple serious threats. First, they're beholden to water and depend on unobstructed waterways. They need to be able to travel from deep inland, out to sea, and back inland to spawn. Dams built along the river to enable electricity, agriculture and travel inhibit that journey for lamprey and for other key local fish, like salmon.

KHERA: And researchers have worked to reverse this for native at-risk fish, like salmon. And that hasn't helped the lamprey at all. For instance, researchers started putting fish ladders along the Columbia River dams to make sure salmon could travel freely. But those ladders are too angular for the lamprey to use.

RAMIREZ: Second hurdle - drumroll - climate change. The waterways in the region are drying up, disconnecting, becoming patchworks, inhibiting their migration.

KHERA: From here, the list goes on - habitat loss, in part because of urbanization, decreases in water flow down the river and pollution, plus predation from non-native species introduced to the area. All these issues are being documented and studied by researchers because you need the data to figure out and to fix the problems.

RAMIREZ: But there is good news here. PLCI created the original assessment of lamprey populations in 2011, and over the years, they've expanded their efforts to include places where there wasn't any data before, like Alaska and parts of Washington state. And they're already working towards the next lamprey summit happening in 2022, when they'll update the conservation agreement and set new goals based on their progress.

KHERA: Columbia River tribes are leading research efforts. The Yakama Nation and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla, along with fish and wildlife, are studying and implementing artificial propagation methods and the hopes of boosting lamprey populations. They're partnering with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to create new lamprey-friendly flumes to help bypass dams. And everyone is actively working on education initiatives to get the next generations excited about protecting the lamprey.

RAMIREZ: What's really stuck out over the course of our reporting are the partnerships. The initiative is a case study for how conservation movements can really start from the ground up and quickly. It's about community and what happens when we listen to each other and take each other seriously. It's the interwoven relationship between people and their ecosystems.

COATES: Tribes have been around for a very long time, and they've interacted within these systems for a really long time. And so I think that's really key to remember, that - you know, being able to see yourself as having a connectedness to this species and being a part of it, as opposed to looking at it as - you know, it's a separate species in a separate system. We're all here together. We're all sharing it.


KHERA: And animals like the lamprey that have been around for millions of years have an essential biological role devoid of humans, yes. But humans now are part of that ecosystem. So while many of the lampreys problems were caused by humans, it's also humans who will push forward research, steward the environment and craft plans that will bring the lamprey back.


RAMIREZ: To learn more about the Pacific lamprey and tribal-led conservation efforts, check out the documentary "The Lost Fish," and, if you're into a long read, the "Tribal Pacific Lamprey Restoration Plan." We'll leave links in the episode notes.


RAMIREZ: Today's episode was co-produced and co-reported by me, Rebecca Ramirez.

KHERA: And me, Indi Khera.

RAMIREZ: Indi, thank you so much for working on this episode with me. What a brilliant last piece to work with us on as a full-time colleague. We're so lucky.

KHERA: Thank you so much for having me on this episode and for such an amazing summer. I loved every minute of working with you and everyone else, including our fearless editors, Viet Le and Gisele Grayson, Rasha Aridi and Margaret Cirino, who were the phenomenal fact checkers this episode, and Josh Newell, the brilliant audio engineer to whom we are indebted for this fabulous mix.

RAMIREZ: Special thanks to Ralph Lampman, Aaron Jackson and Monica Blanchard.

KHERA: And of course, thank you to you, our listener, for listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.


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