Two Pacific lampreys have a new temporary home in the Autzen Otter Exhibit! Brought to the Museum from the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, these fish are on display in the indoor fish tank.
Lamprey have a rich cultural history with the tribal groups of the Columbia Plateau, but the fish have lost much of their native habitat. Many people may not consider them an attractive fish, but they are vitally important to High Desert river ecosystems and have a fascinating biology and natural history.
Along with species like river otters, lampreys are indicators of healthy riparian ecosystems. Juvenile lamprey are filter feeders and extremely sensitive to pollution and water quality factors. Adults are migratory, requiring extensive habitat connectivity so they can move between the High Desert and the Pacific Ocean. Lamprey were historically widespread and abundant in the High Desert, including here in the Upper Deschutes watershed, but have been lost from most of that historic range.
Losing these anadromous fish, meaning fish that migrate from salt water to spawn in fresh water, from mountain and desert streams was undoubtedly a huge blow to the productivity of those ecosystems. The Umatilla and other tribes in the region have led efforts to restore lamprey populations, educate the public about them and to preserve the cultural legacy surrounding the harvest of the fish as a valued traditional food source.
The Umatilla tribe for several years has been translocating lamprey to the Upper Umatilla River basin and other streams in Eastern Oregon and Idaho. Live fish are gathered in the spring at Bonneville Dam and driven upstream where they are kept for many months in special tanks before being released to reproduce in habitats that have been devoid of lamprey for over a century.
Rather than staying in a tank at the hatchery, our two fish will remain at the museum as they sexually mature over the next few months. They will be on exhibit to increase awareness about the conservation of these incredible High Desert fish and their ties to the region’s history and culture. If all goes well, the tribe will retrieve them this summer and release them back into the river to spawn, potentially contributing to the revival of a lost population. If the project is successful we will then receive new fish, and start the process over.