#6: Lamprey

We have many amazing creatures that we share the lower Columbia River with. One of them is a fish species that has survived for 300–400 million years, migrates to and from the ocean, and provided sustenance for generations upon generations of Tribal peoples along the Columbia. No, not salmon (that species is far younger), but lamprey!  

lamprey pictured with its circular, teeth-rimmed mouth toward the front
photo credit USFWS

Can you imagine a fish that swims on this Earth today that is unchanged in many ways from when it first evolved ~400 million years ago? A fish that burrows like an earthworm into the river bottom for up to 10 years, improving the river for other species. A fish that is so tasty that it nourishes fish, birds, mammals (including humans!), and bacteria. A fish that brings joy and wonder to the people who learn about their secrets. What a gift to us that lampreys have chosen to live in the lower Columbia where we can get to know them. We can all give back by respecting and caring for them and their home and spreading the word how important they are! 
-Christina Wang, fish biologist, US Fish and Wildlife Service


There is a lot to learn about lamprey, but here are a few favorite fascinating facts: 

the mouth of a lamprey
The jawless mouth of a Pacific lamprey.
Photo by USFWS.
  • Many lamprey species are parasitic, including Pacific and river lamprey. During metamorphosis into juveniles and finally their adult stage, these lamprey develop a jawless sucker mouth with sharp teeth. This specialized – and freaky looking – mouth allows them to attach to other fish or whales to feed on blood and body fluids during their time in the ocean. 

  • Once they reach their adult stage they migrate to the ocean, where Pacific lamprey live for 1-2 years and river lamprey only feed as adults for 10 weeks! Once they begin their migration back to freshwater, they do not eat. 

  • Not all of our lamprey are parasites! Western brook lamprey is not parasitic and does not migrate to and from the ocean. These lamprey spend their entire life cycle in fresh water. They do not eat as adults and have only small, nonfunctional teeth. 

  • Pacific lamprey are extremely nutritious and are high in calories and fat. They are an important food source that local Tribes use as medicine and as a traditional and ceremonial food. With their high fat content, dried lamprey are a valuable food that can be stored for many months. People have also used them for lamp oil. 

  • Lamprey are an important part of the food web, bringing valuable nutrients from the ocean to inland areas when they migrate back to spawn.  

  • two lamprey on a gravel stream bottom
    Lamprey preparing their redd before
    spawning in Oneonta Creek.

    Like salmon, lamprey spawn in similar gravel-bottomed streams. Male and females both use their mouths to construct a nest (called a redd) by moving stones with their mouths. Also like salmon, they die after spawning. 

  • Unlike salmon, lamprey do not always hone in on their natal stream where they were born, but they are attracted to the pheromones released in ammocoete areas.  

Unfortunately, like many other native species, lamprey populations have suffered severe declines.  

Dams, tide gates and other barriers block their migration. Fish ladders and other passage were designed for salmon, but often do not work for lamprey, which are not strong swimmers. Habitat loss is another major factor in their decline. Lamprey need gravel riffles and areas of slow water to spawn and grow as larva. Dredging can be especially harmful to lamprey as bottom-dwelling filter feeders. Similarly, toxic contamination or chemical spills are inescapable by the tiny, relatively immobile ammocoetes. Climate change also threatens these special creatures. Water temperatures above 72F can kill eggs and ammocoetes, and changing ocean conditions might also be a threat. 

logo with 10 adult lampreyNative Tribes of the Columbia Basin have been especially involved in bringing back these incredible creatures. The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde are working to restore lamprey populations above unpassable dams on the Willamette River. A little further upriver, CRITFC's member tribes have been working to restore lamprey populations since 2007. And the Pacific Lamprey Conservation Initiative is a consortium of tribes, federal, state and local agencies and interested parties working collaboratively to conserve Pacific Lamprey and other native lamprey species. 


lamprey anchors itself to a rock with its mouth
Hang on, lamprey. Photo by USFWS.

Fish biologist Jen Poirier with the US Fish and Wildlife Service shared her feelings about this extraordinary fish:
I feel very fortunate to work with other lamprey biologists and enthusiasts to help conserve this ecologically and culturally important species. I am constantly amazed by the resilience and adaptability that has enabled lampreys to exist over 400 million years. One of my favorite characteristics of the Pacific lamprey it its incredible ability to climb waterfalls and other barriers using its mouth and burst and attach swimming strategy. I also think that juvenile Pacific lampreys are the cutest fish you will find in the lower Columbia River! 

Some of us at the Estuary Partnership just might agree.