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NW Fishletter #385 Sept. 4, 2018

[3] Council OKs Hatchery Test For Pacific Lamprey Recovery

The Northwest Power and Conservation Council (NWPCC) voted Aug. 15 to approve the next step in a long-term plan to recover Pacific lamprey in the Columbia River Basin, but will leave the question of funding to the Bonneville Power Administration.

However, with funds and additional approvals, the Umatilla and Yakama tribes and the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission will--for the first time--begin releasing lamprey larvae into a handful of rivers to study whether hatchery programs can help recover this ancient jawless fish whose population has greatly diminished from historical numbers.

The fish provide an important source of food for tribes, and play a significant role in the Northwest's ecosystem, bringing back marine-derived nutrients to the freshwater environment, and offering a high-calorie source of prey for marine and freshwater predators, such as sea lions and cormorants.

The Council's support for the next five years--which includes Phase 2 and part of Phase 3 of the "Master Plan: Pacific Lamprey Artificial Propagation, Translocation, Restoration, and Research"--means that after years of laboratory research, tribes can begin to study whether young lamprey reared in a hatchery will survive in a natural setting, migrate to the ocean and return as adults.

If funding and environmental approvals come through, work to recover lamprey will include planting larvae in the Yakima, Naches, Tucannon and Walla Walla rivers, and relocating adults to the Methow, Yakima, Umatilla and Grand Ronde rivers.

Mindful of funding issues at BPA, the Council's blessing also came with a "request" that Bonneville and the tribes assess whether adequate funding is available. That caveat marks a new era in how the Council approves fish and wildlife projects, said Mark Fritsch, the Council's project implementation manager.

Fritsch noted Bonneville is still negotiating with contractors across the region on its fiscal year 2019 budget, and the Council is not part of those negotiations. He said the Council's action makes it clear that funding the Pacific lamprey master plan is a priority, but leaves funding specifics up to Bonneville and the tribes.

In a decision memo to the Council, Fritsch said the costs will likely range from about $100,000 to $350,000 annually, with costs for the Umatilla project at $670,848, and the Yakama project at $304,601.

NWPCC spokesman John Harrison said he believes the Pacific lamprey master plan is the first major fish and wildlife project the Council has approved since BPA Administrator Elliot Mainzer came to the Council in both April and June to explain the need for cost cuts across the agency, including some $30 million from its fish and wildlife program.

He said BPA's concern over F&W costs is not new, but this time, the flood of cheap renewable energy on the market and questions about Bonneville's future competitiveness will likely mean the Council will put similar conditions on future fish and wildlife project requests.

Brian McIlraith, Pacific lamprey project leader for CRITFC, said while BPA's financial outlook is a concern, the tribes are motivated to accomplish objectives in its Pacific lamprey master plan, and have already worked to keep costs down, including using existing facilities at salmon hatcheries to rear lamprey.

Council approval also came with a favorable review by the Independent Scientific Review Panel, and a condition that ISRP review the program again in 2022.

Aaron Jackson, lamprey project leader for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, said he hopes funding issues don't break the momentum in Pacific lamprey recovery, boosted through the Columbia Basin Fish Accords, which provided $5 million a year from 2008 through 2018 to help mainstem passage. Those funds disappear after this year, unless renewed, and do not address juvenile passage, Jackson noted.

Still, there has been much improvement in Pacific lamprey populations.

In the Umatilla River, the fish were functionally extinct from the 1960s to the 2000s, and just 10 years ago only a handful of adults returned to the river each year.

Now, after decades of work, record numbers of adults are returning to the Umatilla. Jackson said this year's return is expected to hit 3,300 adults.

According to the master plan, the Umatilla tribe began its lamprey restoration efforts in 1995, and has since translocated over 4,700 adult lamprey into the Umatilla River basin, monitored the distribution of larval lamprey and out-migration of juveniles, identified and monitored adult passage barriers, and developed artificial propagation and rearing techniques.

A similar story can be told in other parts of the lower Columbia River, although numbers remain low in many parts of the basin. According to the master plan, daytime counts at Bonneville Dam declined from about 400,000 in the 1950s and 1960s to fewer than 10,000 in 2009 and 2010. But Jackson said in recent years, about 200,000 adults have been counted at Bonneville Dam.

Jackson noted that for decades, these ancient fish that have occupied Pacific Northwest rivers for 350 million years were seen as "trash" fish. In some places, like the Umatilla River, fish managers used rotenone to try to eradicate them, he said. An invasion of Atlantic lamprey into the Great Lakes left a stigma on Pacific lamprey, which are native to the Columbia River and an important part of the basin's ecology.

However, he noted, "Lamprey still has that stigma. The poor things are not winning any beauty contests. But once you work with them, you can see their beauty." He added, "There's been a lot of excitement, and a lot of mainstem improvements, but there are still a lot of things to accomplish."

The master plan's goal is to re-establish Pacific lamprey throughout its historical range, especially in the Columbia River Basin. That recovery should be widely distributed, and provide for ecological, cultural and harvestable levels. Currently, harvest is minimal and limited to traditional and cultural needs, with almost all lamprey harvest occurring at Willamette Falls in Oregon.

McIlraith said artificial propagation and adult translocation are just pieces of the lamprey's overall needs for recovery. He said the Umatilla and Yakama tribes have become world leaders in efforts to develop artificial propagation methods, and told the Council they are the "brains and the brawn" behind restoring lamprey through supplementation.

The Yakamas raised a handful of lamprey larvae from eggs to the juvenile stage, which only Japanese scientists had previously accomplished, he noted. Those efforts may help in attempts to release different age classes.

McIlraith said developing a hatchery program for lamprey is more difficult than it is for salmon. "We're talking about fish that, in the wild, are spending anywhere from three to 14 years as larval fish before they go out to the ocean. We don't know what dictates that variation," he said. Salmon spend two or three years as freshwater juveniles.

Another issue, he said, is that lamprey larvae live in sediment, so fish managers need significantly more room to expand production. In addition, because their life cycle is significantly longer, scientists studying lamprey will have to wait several years for results.

But for Jackson, the wait has been worth it. "Seeing it from inception to what I would call success is really gratifying," he said. "These fish aren't even ESA-listed. I think we're proving it doesn't take a listing to really improve a species, and be just as successful, if not more successful." -K.C. Mehaffey

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Publisher/Editor-in-Chief: Mark Ohrenschall, Editor: K.C. Mehaffey
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