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Oregon Zoo's Pacific Lamprey Exhibit Showcases the Power of Collaboration Between the Service, Tribes, and Conservation Partners

By Sean Connolly and Johnna Roy



Dancers from area Native American Tribes and others perform the 'Eel Dance,' celebrating the grand opening of the Oregon Zoo 'Meet Your Ancient Neighbor' Pacific Lamprey exhibit on World Rivers Day 2019. Credit: Theresa Thom/USFWS

  • Portland, Oregon
    When Oregon’s first Pacific Lamprey zoo exhibit officially debuted on World Rivers Day September 29, 2019, the unique fish wasn’t the only thing on display.
    So was the power of collective action, the criticality of showcasing how tribal cultural connections intertwine with our region's wildlife conservation efforts, and the synergy of shared values held by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), area Native American Tribes, and the Oregon Zoo.

  • Exhibit visitors can learn about the current threats to Pacific lamprey, conservation actions being taken, what they can do to help, and why lamprey are so important to many area tribes.
    Credit: Christina Wang/USFWS


  • The “Meet Your Ancient Neighbor” exhibit was collaboratively planned and designed over the past two years by the Zoo, the Service’s Columbia-Pacific Region Fish and Aquatic Conservation Program, and the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC) and many Pacific Northwest tribes. This fruitful partnership is paying conservation dividends to all partners, with great promise to grow into the future.

  • One of five Pacific lamprey in the exhibit's 500 gallon tank. Credit: Michael Durham/Oregon Zoo.
    This very popular exhibit shares several simple, powerful messages with the Zoo’s estimated 1.7 million annual visitors. Key among those are: Pacific Lamprey are vitally important both ecologically and culturally, they are fascinating, little-known, and under-appreciated, they need our help, and by working together we can conserve, protect, and restore them now and for future generations.

  • The Cultural Connections portion of the exhibit highlights the importance of -- and close connection with -- "'Brother Lamprey" that many West Coast tribes share.
    Credit: Sean Connolly/USFWS

    The Cultural Connections portion of the exhibit puts front-and-center the critical role tribes within the range of Pacific Lamprey have played for more than two decades in both raising awareness of the species’ plight and leading cutting-edge research, conservation, and restoration efforts. It also highlights the deeper historical connection tribes’ have with the fish, showcasing through images, language, and stories how ‘Brother Lamprey’ is for many tribes a teacher, a family member, a responsibility to protect and conserve, and a species essential to sustaining time-immemorial traditions such as First Fish celebrations and annual harvest.

  • Jeremy Red Star Wolf, Chairman of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, speaks at the grand opening of the Pacific Lamprey exhibit at the Oregon Zoo September 29, 2019. Credit: Johnna Roy/USFWS


    "The lamprey in the new Oregon Zoo exhibit will be ambassadors," said CRITFC Chairman Jeremy Red Star Wolf, a keynote speaker at the exhibit’s World Rivers Day opening celebration. "They will introduce visitors to this ancient, vital, native Columbia Basin fish and the cultural connection they have with the region's tribes. The tribes hope that learning about and seeing them, visitors will grow to cherish lamprey as we do, and realize how their recovery is foundational to the health and recovery of the entire Columbia River ecosystem."

Lamprey as Teacher: the Cultural Connections exhibit features, among others,the story of Elmer Crow, a Nez Perce Elder and one of the nation's strongest and most enduring advocates for 'Brother Eel.' Crow's legacy lives on in the exhibit, and he is frequently credited as an inspiration by many in the Pacific Lamprey conservation community. Credit: Johnna Roy/USFWS

For the Service and the Zoo, the Pacific Lamprey exhibit is more than an effort to spotlight a unique fish, it is part of a broader effort to showcase collective efforts to restore other iconic species, such as California Condors. It’s also an opportunity to let area tribes tell their stories to the public, in their own words, about their conservation contributions, leadership, and deep cultural relationships with these animals and the land.

Don Moore, Executive Director of the Oregon Zoo, at the 'Meet Your Ancient Neighbor' Pacific Lamprey exhibit. Credit: Johnna Roy/USFWS

“We see you all as critical conservation partners in the region for your work with species recovery and critical habitat restoration,” said Don Moore, the Oregon Zoo’s Executive Director, to a July 11, 2019, gathering of tribal and Service leaders commemorating the arrival of the exhibit’s first Pacific Lamprey on loan from the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation’s Pacific Lamprey Research and Restoration Project.

"It is ... exciting to have shared the development of this exhibit with tribal nations of the region, the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This exhibit has provided an opportunity to build relationships,” Moore added.

An exhibit display showcasing Pacific lamprey's unique physical features and life history.
Credit: Oregon Zoo.


The exhibit’s interpretive panels and five adult Pacific Lamprey provide visitors with hands-on, fish-eye views and information about the life history, conservation status, threats, and collaborative conservation efforts more than 176 organizations are taking to protect this rarely-seen and enigmatic fish. The display tank is designed to resemble a Pacific Northwest stream, and also includes coho salmon and Warner Sucker to recognize restoration and recovery efforts for other native protected fish species.


Leah Schrodt, the Service's lead Interpreter at the Oregon Zoo and one of the creators of the Pacific Lamprey education kits, shows a young visitor the life cycle of a Pacific Lamprey.
Credit: Sean Connolly/USFWS

But the exhibit partners aren’t finished now that Pacific Lamprey are on officially display. The Zoo, Service, CRITFC, and tribes are collaborating on other opportunities to better showcase this important fish, including developing education kits for use at the Zoo and in local communities to expand upon the exhibit's key interpretive messages. Continuing to support the tribes’ efforts to share their cultures will be a central part of that interpretive effort.


  • "Getting Stuck on the Pacific Lamprey," an Oregon Zoo pub talk sponsored by CRITFC, the Zoo, and the Service, drew over 110 attendees.The Word Cloud generated at the presentation's conclusion reflects the audience's impressions of Pacific Lamprey after the presentation. Credits: Sean Connolly/USFWS; Oregon Zoo.

Pacific Lamprey are more than ambassadors as the centerpiece of the Oregon Zoo’s innovative new exhibit. Their resilience and fragility is a reminder that our collective choices and actions matter, the wisdom of our elders whether they’re tribal elders or 450 million year old fish matters, and that a species’ value should be recognized both ecologically and how people are connected to it.

Roy Elicker, Assistant Regional Director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Columbia - Pacific Northwest Fish and Aquatic Conservation Program. Credit: Michael Durham/Oregon Zoo

Roy Elicker, Assistant Regional Director for the Service’s Columbia-Pacific Region Fish and Aquatic Conservation Program sums up the exhibit, and the collaborative conservation ethos behind it, this way, “We all care deeply about this ancient species, our neighbor, and our elder. This exhibit will be integral in reaching many, many people to tell the lamprey’s amazing story and to build support for their conservation. It represents a huge step toward achieving our common goal of recovering Pacific Lamprey for future generations."

The future of Pacific Lamprey depends upon all of us, especially future generations.
Credit: Freshwaters Illustrated

Last Updated: November 25, 2019
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