Yakama Youth Brave Willamette Falls for Lamprey Harvest

Courtesy Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission Youth harvesting lamprey are seen here at the base of Willamette Falls. The are, from left, Henry Begay, Steven Begay and Josiah Dave.

Leeanne Root

Lamprey harvest important to tribal communities for sustenance, ceremonies

On July 7, the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission went live on Facebook and showed its social media community just how fearless Native American youth can be. In the posted video, a group of them are seen battling the raging waters at the base of Willamette Falls in order to harvest lamprey to bring back to the tribes.

Sara Thompson, Grand Ronde, said the lamprey harvest presents dangerous conditions. A boat is steered to the base of the falls, and then the younger tribal members crawl around the rocks looking for lamprey to bring back to their communities.

Watch the video, posted by CRITFC on Facebook.


Thompson, who is a public information officer for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC), also explained that the harvesters wait until PG&E, who owns the power company near Willamette Falls, installs flashboards at the top of the falls. The flashboards are designed to reduce the flow over the falls so more goes through the power facility, which does a couple of things.

“First, it reduces flow so tribal members can get in there easier and harvest these animals… second it creates pockets of lamprey,” Thompson told ICMN. The pockets trap lamprey at the base of the falls. “They get isolated in these pockets of water because flows are reduced so much they don’t have a way out, water temperatures rise, and unfortunately lamprey will die… we don’t want to see lamprey lost to the system, so we salvage those fish so they are able to go back to our communities.”

The lamprey harvest is important to the tribal communities of the Columbia River Basin, who see the animal’s rich, fatty meat as an important food source. “In our religious ceremonies, sometimes we have them, sometimes we don’t. When we don’t have them, we miss them,” Warm Springs Elder Wilson Wewa said in The Lost Fish: The Struggle to Save Pacific Lamprey, a documentary produced by Freshwaters Illustrated in partnership with CRITFC to show the work tribes are doing to save the pacific lamprey. Wewa went on to say that elders older than him ask why they don’t have the lamprey, and sometimes it’s because not enough could be harvested. “I would hate to see the extinction of lamprey in my lifetime. They’ve been here for hundreds of millions of years.”

The lamprey has been around for about 450 million years, but as Wilson said, “It’s only going to take 100 years to wipe them out.”

“Tribal members knew them as the cleaners of the streams,” said Aaron Jackson, of Umatilla Tribal Fisheries, in the documentary. He talks about how the Umatilla River was poisoned and the lamprey are often lumped into the category of “trash fish,” by non-Natives, and how thousands of lamprey could be seen dead along the banks when the rivers were poisoned in the 60s and 70s.

“People didn’t really understand the connection that tribes had with lamprey,” he said.

The Umatilla Tribal Fisheries and others, like the Yakama Nation Fish Hatchery and the Nez Perce Fisheries are working to restore the lamprey to the Columbia River Basin, so the lamprey harvest can continue.

“We’re down there harvesting for our community, so we can have that reconnection with our culture and our heritage and the spirit of the lamprey. These fish play an important role, not just to the ecosystem, but play an important role in our life and our culture,” Jackson said in the documentary. “They’re involved in the ceremonies at the longhouse, they’re considered one of our first foods, they’ve always been a part of our heritage and the promise that we made as tribal people to take care of these fish. They sacrificed themselves for our well-being, and we made a promise that as long as they’re around we will work to protect them… lamprey populations are in decline. I feel like we’re not living up to our end of the bargain.”

The Lost Fish documentary was filmed in 2012, and in it Jackson reported that the lamprey population in the Umatilla River had increased because of restoration efforts.

“Improvements that we’re making in the Umatilla and improvements that other tribes are making in other basins in the Columbia may not be things that we get to see the benefit of in our lifetime,” Jackson said. “I’m working for generations after me, and hopefully my kids, their grandkids will be able to harvest lamprey in the Umatilla again.”

The restoration efforts involve nurturing lamprey in hatcheries and setting them free in the wild, and figuring out ways to help the lamprey navigate the dams of the Columbia River.

“Dire situations call for dire answers. That’s basically all we’re trying to do here is expand upon our knowledge of what we learned in the salmon world and take that over to the lamprey world,” Patrick Luke, of Yakama Nation Fisheries, said in the documentary.

Talking about salmon is important when talking about the lamprey harvest because as many in the documentary and even Thompson pointed out, “we live in a very salmon-centric world, the lamprey is overlooked.”

But the lamprey are important not only to the tribal culture, but they are also important to the ecosystem of the Columbia River.

“People need to understand what the lamprey is, he is a fish that belongs to this river system,” said Jerrid Weaskus, of Umatilla Tribal Fisheries, in the documentary. “He’s been native to this river system, so he belongs here. This river system needs him.”

Lamprey were once abundant in the Columbia River, swimming as far as the headwaters to the river. Now, Jackson said, they are really only present in the mid- and lower Columbia River, which is because of the many dams that have been built.

“It is disheartening to realize and understand that I’ve got to go down to the main Columbia River to get my hands on these fish, they aren’t going to come back here on their own,” Jackson explained in the documentary how he and others have to go to where the lamprey are and bring them to other areas.

In 1972, the late Elmer Crow Jr., of Nez Perce Fisheries, watched a lone lamprey in the south fork of the Salmon River. He knew then that someone was telling him there was a problem and that was the last one he saw there. Until 2012 that is, when the fisheries program released lamprey back into the Salmon River.

“After 40 years I finally get to bring some of his family back and put them into this stream, which means a lot to me because they belong here,” Crow said.

Though commonly referred to as lamprey eels, the lamprey is not even closely related to the eel. According to CRITFC, they are more closely related to hagfish and sharks than eels. Though the two are similar in body shape that is where the similarities end. Lamprey are about 450 million years old, and eels are only about five million to seven million years old. Eels have bones, a small pointed head, are covered in gill slits, have weak jaws with many teeth and rayed fins. Lamprey have a boneless body with a cartilage skeleton that has open gill holes, a jawless sucking disc mouth and no fin rays.