Skip Navigation

FY 2016 Program Highlights


For decades, Pacific lamprey were a relatively forgotten fish, even considered a nuisance species. Now tribes, federal and state conservation agencies, and other partners are working to protect, rebuild, and restore runs of this ancient, and vulnerable, species.
Conservation Efforts For Pacific Lamprey Begin to See Dividends

By Sean Connolly and Christina Wang, Fish and Aquatic Conservation Program

For Pacific lamprey, long a 'forgotten fish' in the conservation conversation, 2016 was the year the species swam back into the spotlight.

Pacific lamprey are a native, anadromous fish that historically returned to spawn in large numbers in West Coast watersheds. Fish passage impediments, reduced instream flows and stream dewatering, degraded water quality, and changing ocean and climate conditions have all contributed to reductions in lamprey populations across most of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and California. Decades of misunderstanding the species' cultural and ecological importance hadn't helped, either.

Despite their alarming appearance, Pacific lamprey are not only harmless to humans, but primarily prey upon other species when travelling to and swimming in the ocean.
Photo Credit: Freshwaters Illustrated//USFWS
That began changing over the past decade after federal agencies, tribes, states, and other partners began to prioritize conservation efforts for a species often overlooked in favor of other iconic or more charismatic fish.

In 2012, 30 partners signed the Pacific Lamprey Conservation Agreement, which is part of a broader Pacific Lamprey Conservation Initiative that identifies and prioritizes research needs, conservation actions, and uses a regional framework to address and reduce threats across the species' U.S. range.

A rangewide map of Pacific lamprey populations: USFWS
The Initiative got a major boost in 2016 when the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians voted unanimously in February to support establishment of a Pacific Lamprey Fish Habitat Partnership, an endorsement that was officially recognized by the National Fish Habitat Partnership Board later that June. The Partnership envisions a future where threats to Pacific Lamprey and their habitats are substantially reduced and the species' populations are restored to the greatest extent possible.


A Service biologist uses specially-modified electroshockers to survey for larval lamrey.
Photo Credit: Ann Grote/USFWS

While the new Partnership will give lamprey conservation an additional boost, years of Initiative-led planning, on-the-ground actions, and research also began yielding payoffs. In 2016 adult Pacific lamprey passed over the Bonneville Dam at a rate more than double the species' ten-year average. While the numbers represent a fraction of lamprey passage from 40-50 years ago, it's still an encouraging development. Regional Implementation Plans -- or RIPs -- under the Conservation Agreement also hit a milestone: more than half of the 14 RIPs now have working or completed drafts, including all four of California's coastal Regional Management Units.


The Van Arsdale Fish Ladder was modified in 2016 to allow better passage for Pacific lamprey. Photo Credit: Damon Goodman/USFWS

Although large rivers like the Columbia, Snake, and Umatilla rivers have recently been the focus of improved lamprey fishways, 2016 was a year when passage improvements at dams and diversions on smaller tributaries earned the spotlight. Service biologists coordinated a multi-agency team to construct and install lamprey passage improvements at Horn Rapids and Prosser diversion dams on Washington's Yakima River. Further south on California's Eel River the Service, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Pacific Gas and Electric not only modified the Van Arsdale Fish Ladder to enable year-round lamprey passage, but did so using experimental trials, a population monitoring system, and Passive Integrated Tag technology that continuously monitors how frequently adult lamprey use the modified ladder.



Passive Integrated Transponder being inserted into a juvenile lamprey. PIT tags are one method used to detect lamprey movements. Photo Credit: Kyle Hanson/USFWS
Science continues to be the key driver shaping Pacific lamprey conservation. A publicly-available lamprey data clearinghouse has been established on, and includes information garnered
from research completed by a variety of partners.

Larval and juvenile lamprey are notoriously challenging to survey, so partners are exploring innovative ways to monitor and assess lamprey populations such as deploying emerging eDNA applications (DNA that has been separated from the organism but can be collected from the environment). In 2016, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Service initiated a pilot project where eDNA was used to analyze every site the Service had electrofished for lamprey throughout Washington's Chehalis and Nisqually River Basins. The study results will help scientists establish guidelines for how--and where--to conduct future surveys in other parts of the species' range.

Larval Pacific lamprey. Photo Credit: James Barron/USFWS

Scientists and conservation managers now also have a new Pacific lamprey climate change vulnerability assessment tool that, when coupled with downscaled climate projection models, can help determine what populations are most vulnerable and my need focused management actions such as lamprey-oriented habitat restoration. Other 2016 research breakthroughs resulted in solution to better protect juvenile lamprey at one of the world's largest surface water diversions. Thanks to a collaborative study between the Service and the Bureau of Reclamation, the Tracy Fish Collection Facility within California's Central Valley Project now has fish screens redesigned with lamprey-friendly material and a fish salvage protocol that will not only protect lamprey at one of their most vulnerable life stages, but could have applications at other, similar facilities.

But the region's most captivating 2016 lamprey stories didn't involve passage improvements or research breakthroughs. For the first time in over a century, Pacific lamprey were discovered in Washington's White Salmon and Elwha Rivers, five years after Condit and Elwha Dams, respectively, were removed. Both facilities had historically blocked upstream migration of fish throughout the 20th Century, but in February and March juvenile and larval lamprey were spotted in both systems by Service or tribal biologists. The discoveries provide a unique and exciting opportunity to observe and monitor naturally-recolonizing Pacific lamprey populations, since the fish are likely offspring from adults who spawned in once inaccessible habitat.


For the first time in a century, young Pacific lamprey were found in the Elwha and White Salmon Rivers five years after Elwha and Condit Dams were removed, respectively. Photo Credit: USFWS
So while efforts will continue to rebuild Pacific lamprey populations using an array of human-led efforts like conservation hatcheries, translocation programs, fish passage improvements, and better water management practices, it's encouraging to see lamprey rebound when rivers literally run their course. As Yakama Nation Councilman Patrick Luke concluded after learning about the discovery of larval lamprey on the Mitula Wana (White Salmon River), "All lamprey need is a chance to recolonize on their own. This is a good day." It's also one of several important 2016 milestones forward in furthering the science, collective conservation, and partner-driven efforts to restore one of the planet's most ancient -- and most vulnerable -- fish.

Pacific lamprey scale vertical surfaces not by jumping, but instead using their suction disc mouths and tail movement. Photo Credit: Toru Tsuzaki


Last Updated: May 25, 2017
Return to main navigation