Applying Strategic Habitat Conservation to the Pacific Lamprey Conservation Initiative
Pacific Lamprey NatureServe Rankings Map. Credit: USFWS Credit: USFWS
What Service priority fish species boasts a 400 million-year ancestry, lacks bones, scales and jaws, and benefits from the Strategic Habitat Conservation (SHC) framework?
If you guessed Pacific lamprey (Entosphenus tridentata), you’re right. Lamprey, a native anadromous species that, like salmon, historically returned to spawn in large numbers into watersheds along the West Coast of the United States, have experienced population declines and restricted distribution throughout Washington, Oregon, Idaho and California.
The actions of people often put lampreys at risk during their 7- to 10-year lifespan. Threats include restricted fish passage, stream and floodplain degradation, declining water quality and quantity, and changing marine and climate conditions. These threats affect spawning, rearing and migration in both fresh and saltwater environments.
“The Service is very concerned about the status of Pacific lamprey”, says Howard Schaller, Project Leader for the Columbia River Fisheries Program Office and Western Lampreys Conservation Team Lead. “That’s why we’re working with [West Coast] tribes and state and federal agencies to put together a Conservation Initiative.”
The Initiative seeks to improve the status of Pacific Lamprey throughout their range by implementing research and conservation. Taking a landscape-level approach, the Initiative’s three-part process features crafting an assessment developing a conservation agreement and establishing regional implementation plans in coordination with partners to guide how and where conservation actions are carried out.
The assessment, completed in October 2011, incorporates two elements of the SHC approach: biological planning and conservation design. Developed to track the current knowledge of Pacific Lamprey, the plan also describes threats and factors for Pacific lamprey declines, and identifies conservation actions and research, monitoring and evaluation needs.
The plan also does something unique: It details information about Pacific lamprey populations in a manner never done before. Current and historic distribution of the species is outlined both at a range-wide scale and into nine discrete geographic units, or Regions. Assembling lamprey population data across such a wide scale entailed interviewing local field biologists and experts and an extensive literature search.
The need justified the effort – lampreys are among the most poorly studied groups of fishes on the West Coast and no one had previously attempted such broad-scale research. Furthermore, in order to establish future measurable population objectives and prioritize conservation actions, the Service and its Initiative partners needed to know what population data were available and where gaps existed.
The overall scarcity of Pacific lamprey data sometimes made it necessary to estimate demographic factors using methods applied to better-studied, anadromous species like steelhead, whose populations have ranges are similar to lamprey. Collecting lamprey population information that was current, available and reliable took about two years.
But the work has paid off. For the first time ever, each identified Region now includes a consistent approach on gauging Pacific lamprey population metrics.
The Initiative also classified is the scope and severity of threats to lamprey populations. Using a diagnostic tool adapted from NatureServe and existing demographic and threat information collected through a series of regional meetings with partners, individual watersheds are ranked by the relative risk of extirpation.
“Most Pacific lamprey populations range wide are all at relatively high risk [of extirpation], so there aren’t a lot of areas that are doing well,” according to Christina Luzier, the assessment’s lead author and member of the Western Lampreys Conservation Team. “And the threats to various populations are different: urbanization, stream degradation, channelization, irrigation 0withdrawals, point source pollution and passage, to name a few.”
The assessment shows that Pacific lamprey populations are declining in abundance and increasingly restricted in distribution throughout Washington, Oregon, Idaho and California. The majority of watersheds are at relatively high risk, with very few that are relatively secure.
After publishing the assessment, the Service and partners moved to the Initiative’s next step: developing and committing to a conservation agreement that includes conservation goals. The agreement is a voluntary commitment by interested parties to collaborate on efforts to reduce or eliminate threats to Pacific lamprey to the greatest extent possible. It aims to achieve long-term persistence and support traditional tribal cultural use of Pacific lamprey throughout their range as well as enable stakeholders to collaborate, pool available resources, and expeditiously implement conservation actions.
The agreement redoubles efforts to effectively focus limited resources to conserve lamprey. The species is both culturally important, particularly for tribes that still harvest the species as a food source and consider Pacific lamprey a “first fish.” Lamprey are also ecologically important—juvenile and adult lamprey act as a prey buffer for salmon to a variety of fish, bird and marine mammal predators, while larval lamprey filter feed on the bottom of rivers and streams.
“The Native American tribes really expressed concerns [about lamprey] because they are the ones who track what lamprey are doing; they noticed first that lamprey populations were disappearing or were greatly reduced in their catches, “said Schaller. “Their concerns raised the consciousness of everyone.”
To date, close to 30 partners have solidified their commitment to Pacific Lamprey by signing the agreement and answering the call for restoration actions. These include 11 tribes, four state fish and wildlife agencies, and seven federal agencies.
Conservation delivery for Pacific lamprey is next, and will be advanced by the development and deployment of regional implementation plans. Implementation plans will be built upon the assessment and agreement as well as other existing reference documents.
The goal is for regional implementation plans to align with the SHC Conservation Delivery, Monitoring and Adaptive Management phases. To be developed by partners locally, these plans will prioritize actions of greatest need to boost lamprey populations, such as modifying fish ladders and entranceways at dams, constructing lamprey-friendly passage structures at tributary barriers, restoring lamprey habitat and consideration of lamprey during in-stream work.
Guided by biological planning and conservation designs in the assessment, these plans will call for monitoring actual outcomes of conservation actions to evaluate the effectiveness and progress toward Conservation Initiative goals. In addition, the results of this monitoring will allow the Service to update biological models and conservation designs. The SHC feedback loop will continue to guide Pacific lamprey conservation now and into the future.
The Pacific Lamprey Conservation Initiative’s SHC-driven approach represents a watershed moment for the species, not bad for an almost-forgotten West Coast native fish whose value sometimes gets overshadowed by the reputation of its invasive Sea lamprey cousin in the Great Lakes.
Pacific lampreys are excellent indicators of healthy river systems. Our Initiative is not just about restoring lamprey; it’s about restoring river systems for all species,” says Schaller. “And it would be unthinkable to let something this important disappear.”
USFWS Pacific Region