One side to another: research leap in lamprey success

A river otter eats a lamprey on the bank of the South Fork Eel River in Piercy last June.
A river otter eats a lamprey on the bank of the South Fork Eel River in Piercy last June. Talia Rose — Contributed

Using PVC tubing and parts you can find at an irrigation store, two biologists crafted a method for lampreys to make safe passage over the 50-foot Van Arsdale dam and up the Eel River to reproduce.

July marks one full year since Arcata-based U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist Damon Goodman and fish biologist Stewart Reid crafted a tube for lampreys to migrate over the dam which brought the crossing success rate of about 6 percent up to nearly 100 percent for lampreys making it past the dam.

“They’re a really important part of the ecosystem up here,” Goodman said. “... These are actually the most robust populations in the state.”

The research into the bloodsucking fish sheds light onto a species that has proven to the researchers to be a vital part of the watershed ecosystem. The duo’s research on lampreys has been published in multiple academic journals.

Both biologists stated the lampreys are misunderstood. While the species does attach itself to other animals and sucks the blood of the victims, Reid said it tends to be nonlethal. Typically, it’s the lampreys way of hitching a ride.

“They typically drop off at that point,” said Reid, when lampreys near their destination.

The two researchers said they created the migration innovation to prevent the lamprey from being placed on the federal endangered species list and to protect a creature that plays a vital role in waterways.

Reid said he and Goodman began their lamprey adventures back in 2004 when Reid was an adjunct professor at Humboldt State University.

“I told him, ‘I don’t have any money for you, but I have an interesting project,’ ” Reid said.

The two biologists explored rivers along the West Coast between Mexico and Canada, looking for the nocturnal animal as they immersed themselves in Pacific lamprey research. This paved the way for Goodman’s thesis on the species in 2006.

The biologists found that the lampreys move from river to river and are essentially a link to the watersheds.

Both Goodman and Reid said research into lampreys differs from research into more heavily researched species because anything they find is new. Reid said not knowing a lot about the eel-like fish makes the research that much more exciting.

“We’ve looked at all the streams that drain into the ocean,” Goodman said.

Goodman and Reid said the reason why they are able to find success in the research is through the collaborative effort from many different parties.

“You don’t solve the problems by sitting in your office,” Reid said. “You solve it by spending time getting to know the animal.”

Reid said lampreys populations have largely declined in the past few decades. In the 1970s, Reid said there were 40 percent more lampreys than there are now. Both biologists said a large part of why their populations have rapidly declined is because of barriers to their spawning habitats such as dams. That is what inspired to duo to craft a solution to allow for spawning and increased populations. In the year since the test was implemented at the Van Arsdale dam, they have seen an increase in populations, they said.

Lampreys reproduce in freshwater streams which feed into the ocean. During the entire process of lamprey migration and reproduction, they provide much needed nutrients for the entire watershed.

Goodman said although the lamprey are scary-looking fish, they are actually filter feeders which clean the river systems. Beyond cleaning up our watersheds, the researchers said the fish provides an abundance of nutrients for all walks of life along the watershed.

Goodman said the only time they take their more parasitic lifestyle is when they attach themselves to larger ocean dwelling animals before traveling up streams to reproduce.

“They just waste a lot of energy,” Goodman said about why there is such a low success rate for lampreys getting passed dams.

Both researchers said the success they found with the Van Arsdale project showed hope for other sites up and down the West Coast. Reid said they have been speaking with people interested other states and their project can be recreated both on smaller scales and larger scales.

“Once somebody sees lampreys building a nest, adjusting the rocks, snuggling, spawning and looking up at you with their big brown eyes, your image of lampreys change forever,” he said.

Sam Armanino can be reached at 707-441-0509.

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