4 Million Years of Fish

This lamprey is waiting to be tagged

Often inaccurately referred to as “lamprey eels,” this slippery creature is actually a jawless fish that dates back millions of years. Richard Litts, monitoring coordinator for the Tenmile Lakes Basin Partnership (TLBP), teamed up with Statewide Lamprey Coordinator Ben Clemens and Doc Slyter, Elder of the confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw Indians, to monitor lampreys in the area. Litts and Clemens were there as a continuation of a data collection project monitoring lamprey population trends, while Slyter provided some cultural context for the importance of lampreys. I spoke with him about the history of lampreys in the area and what they mean to the tribe, and he told me that he used to take his kids swimming in these rivers when there were “hundreds” of lampreys among the rocks. “Now,” he says, “you’re lucky to see one at all. If these ancient creatures are being this severely affected, then something’s wrong.”

Several volunteers, members of the watershed council, a veterinarian, and a couple of South Slough interns all gathered together yesterday to try to figure out what that “something” was. The process began by stationing volunteers with nets at all the possible escape points just downriver from the backpack shocker, used to stun fish into the nets. The process sounds simple enough, but lampreys are excellent escape artists and we did several rounds before we caught a fish.

When the man in the backpack yells, “Shocking!” you better have your hands out of the water and your nets in the rocks, because lampreys are swimming your way.

If and when we do catch something, it’s collected in a bucket like the one shown above. When we think we’ve hit the max for the day, the fish are put in a big tub of diluted MS222, the equivalent of anesthesia for fish. When they are motionless, they are quickly picked up, weighed, and measure by length and girth.

Putting the lamprey on the scale.

Lamprey getting its measurements taken. It needs a minimum 85mm girth to be radio tagged.

Then, a small portion of the caudal fin is taken for genotyping and they’re sent off to the “surgery station”

A volunteer handed me her special scissors and let me have a go at DNA collection!

One – by – one, these vials are filled with lamprey DNA for genotyping.

The “surgery station” was put together by members of this group. The tub is filled with diluted MS222 and PVC pipe supports the lamprey while it is being tagged. The tube has a cloth where the lamprey sit and a sponge at the bottom to keep its head from being damaged while allowing it to remain partially immersed in the anesthetic. The radio tag is activated, then surgically inserted and the lamprey is sutured up. Post-op, the lamprey are put in baskets situated in the river where they can safely wake up and eventually be released back into the current

All prepped and ready to go! The “surgeons” admitted that all the bananas in their house have been tightly sutured as their practice runs.

After all seven had been tagged, the group sat down for lunch together and discussed everything they learned about lamprey and lamprey monitoring that morning. One of the interns expressed how rewarding it is to be around so many people with a common goal, and I found a similar contentment in knowing that everyone here feels strongly enough about the protection of these ancient fish to spend their morning in the river.

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About Makinna Miles

Spanish/Cultural Anthropology/Law & Politics. Interested in telling human stories through the use of digital media, particularly surrounding topics such as the environment, health, and human rights. Mediocre kayaker and expert crafter of banana bread.

2 thoughts on “4 Million Years of Fish

  1. I like the “surgery station” description and the note on the bananas being sutured! What a great hands on learning experience about population monitoring of a very important species.

  2. Yes, you did a great job of describing what goes in to this monitoring effort – I would really love to hear about the long-term trends that have been documented. I also really like that you added the cultural context! I’m curious about your title – why 4 million years?

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