Plight of 'lost fish' captured in documentary

<p>This file photo taken July 8, 2011 shows a lamprey at Willamette Falls, in Oregon City.</p>

A species once disregarded as “trash fish”?in Northwest rivers, Pacific lamprey remain a culturally significant food and resource for American Indian tribes across the Columbia Basin.

The eel-like lamprey are the oldest fish found today in the Columbia River system, appearing in fossils 450 million years old. But as hydroelectric dams now block their passage into tributaries upstream, certain populations have dwindled to the point of near extinction.

Tribal efforts to restore lamprey are yielding slow but promising results. “The Lost Fish,”?a new film produced in part by the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, highlights ongoing projects and research led by the Umatilla, Warm Springs, Nez Perce and Yakama reservations.

About 35 people attended a showing of the film Saturday at Wildhorse Resort & Casino, learning about how project leaders collect lamprey from dams where they cannot physically pass over traditional fish ladders. The fish are then brought into prime local spawning habitat, evaluated and monitored.

“We have a lot of stories we can share, but at the same time we have to get our children to understand the importance as well,”?said Kat Brigham, secretary with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation Board of Trustees. “This is part of our culture, part of our way of life. And we shouldn’t let it go extinct.”

CTUIR began its lamprey research and restoration project in 1994, and started transferring lamprey in 2000. The goal is to eventually restore populations to self-sustaining, harvestable levels by transferring fish from Columbia River dams into prime spawning habitat in the Umatilla Basin.

Lamprey were poisoned twice in the Umatilla River, in 1967 and 1974, as part of an effort by fisheries managers to clear habitat for more profitable salmon and steelhead. Those treatments wiped out ages of lamprey at once, said Aaron Jackson, lamprey project leader.

“The idea was they wanted to maximize the amount of habitat in an environment that had less competition between native aquatic species,”?Jackson said. “Tribal members noticed a decline in lamprey, and were tired of seeing them ignored.”

Similar restoration efforts are under way in the Nez Perce tribe, which collects and drives lamprey 300 miles back into Idaho. The Yakama Indian Nation, meanwhile, can still harvest lamprey at Willamette Falls between Oregon City and West Linn.

“The Lost Fish” includes interviews with tribal members and elders, who explain creation stories for lamprey and describe their connection with the people. There is reason to be optimistic, Jackson said, as CTUIR counted approximately 350 adult returns in 2013 compared to just 112 adults in 2011.

However, there is a lot of work left to finish.

“We definitely feel we’re on the right track,”?Jackson said. “The idea is to look at where they spawn, where they rear as juveniles, the characteristics of their out-migration and understanding adult returns.”

Gary James,?fisheries program manager, said the Umatilla River is really the foremost lamprey restoration tributary in the entire Columbia Basin.

“Because we’ve put so many in here, we can learn more about them,”?James said. “We need more attention to this species, because it’s been overlooked.”

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