As the Pacific Lamprey Declines, Native Tribes Work to Protect Sacred Eel-Like Fish | Civil Eats

As the Pacific Lamprey Declines, Native Tribes Work to Protect Sacred Eel-Like Fish

Pacific Lamprey have existed for more than 450 million years, but they are struggling to survive dams, drowned waterfalls, and industrial degradation.

A member of the Yakama Nation plucks a Pacific lamprey off the rocks at Willamette Falls, Oregon. (Photo credit: Mason Trinca/High Country News)

A member of the Yakama Nation plucks a Pacific lamprey off the rocks at Willamette Falls, Oregon. (Photo credit: Mason Trinca/High Country News)

The roar of the falls was an unrelenting thunder of white noise. It was the mid-1950s, and Celilo Falls, on the border between Washington and Oregon—the oldest continuously inhabited spot in North America—had yet to be destroyed. Sparkling headwaters flowed from British Columbia, Montana, and Wyoming, streams gathering to form the Columbia River, which surged westward through the high desert and the rainy Cascade Mountains until it yawned into the brackish slurry of the Pacific estuary. Year after year, for countless generations, millions of fish stampeded back upstream, fighting the ocean’s current to gain the forested upper tributaries, whose sheltered, transparent waters and gravel substrate provided perfect spawning grounds.

The Great River’s annual rotation of anadromous fish included steelhead trout, sturgeon, coho, chinook and sockeye salmon, chum or dog salmon, and the otherworldly Pacific lamprey— a glossy-gray, eel-like fish with seven round gills bored into its sides like the tone holes of a cedar flute. Back then, whenever the adult fish returned, ocean-fresh and ripe to fill hungry bellies, the people gathered at legacy fishing spots, including Celilo Falls.

Lamprey have lived on Earth for 450 million years. To them, dinosaurs were a passing fad, and the North American continent is a fairly recent development.

Every season had a different run: the fall, spring, and summer chinook, each with its own flavor; fall dog salmon and summer lamprey. On the timber scaffolds that etched the incandescent billows of the falls, fishermen tested their strength and bravery, fighting hound-sized fish with 20-foot-long dipnets until they’d hauled in enough to feed their families for a year, share fish with elders, and trade with neighboring tribes. There were millions of salmon, so many that people said you could walk across the Great River on their backs; some elders boasted that they had. The fishers camped around the falls, their pickup trucks, canvas tents, and hand-crafted houses set among rows of cabin-style apartments, where permanent residents lived in multigenerational households. As the fragrance of smoldering alderwood wafted from smoking sheds, mothers and grandmothers sliced sherbet-colored slabs of fish with practiced hands, or popped dried lamprey tail into the mouths of teething babies to soothe their gums with its pain-killing oil. Children sledded down the nearby dunes on cardboard boxes, threw rocks, fetched firewood, or filled buckets at the water pump.

A boy in bib overalls, Wilbur Slockish, hefted freshly caught fish into a wooden box, and covered it with a wet gunny sack to keep it damp. They were so healthy and strong they stayed fresh even without ice. The river water was clear enough to drink. Downstream, the boy’s grandmother hung white mit’úla filets, or dog salmon, on racks to sun-dry, while his father traversed a precarious-looking scaffold that jutted over the turbulent rapids. The family traveled every year from their home in Wahkiacus, a town named for the family of Slockish’s great-grandmother, a famous Klickitat basket weaver. Umatilla folks traveled from the other direction to trade blankets and hides for Grandma’s dried mit’úlaThe falls and surrounding area were a bustling marketplace.

Wilbur, on the brink of adolescence, was still too young to fish; his 18-year-old cousin had nearly drowned in the rapids, and his grandmother had forbidden him to go near the scaffolds. For now, he processed fish in the mists around the falls, which kept the camps cool even in the August heat. After a while, he took a break to play with his siblings and cousins. At night he fell asleep lulled by the roar of mighty Celilo.

A Pacific Lamprey moves a small stone from its nest, or redd. (Photo credit: Jeremy Monroe, Fresh Waters Illustrated/Flickr)

A Pacific Lamprey moves a small stone from its nest, or redd. (Photo credit: Jeremy Monroe, Fresh Waters Illustrated/Flickr)

Fishing these falls was a rite of passage, like getting a driver’s license, but Wilbur Slockish never got to fish them. In the end, it was Celilo Falls that drowned. In 1957, when Wilbur was 13, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the Dalles Dam across the Great River, submerging Celilo Falls in a brazen act of colonization. Wilbur’s father didn’t want him to see this happen, so he took the family away to live in Toppenish. Other families were forced to abandon their homes as the lively, ancient bazaar and the natural wonder that created it both disappeared beneath a reservoir. The sound and mists of Celilo became a memory.

Last July, a gauzy haze hung over the emerald expanse of Meldrum Bar Park in Gladstone, Oregon, refracting the midsummer sun on the season’s hottest weekend so far. The Yakama Nation Pow Wow Drum thumped out a tune as a chain of dancers snaked across the grass in an eel dance. “It takes about 500 years or longer for a fact to turn into a legend or myth,” Wilson Wewa said, peering upward through the soft wrinkles around his small thoughtful eyes. Wewa, an elder and tribal councilman of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, said his people have legends about the time long ago, when animals traveling north were blocked by the great ice sheet covering what’s now called Canada. White academics have long believed that no humans lived here back then. “How would our people make a legend like that if they weren’t here?” Wewa asked, not raising his voice over the music.

Wewa, who wore a button-down long-sleeved shirt and jeans despite the heat, noted that some Western scientists are beginning to acknowledge that Indigenous peoples’ long history on this continent is more than myth or legend. The legends aren’t just stories; they’re stratified memories.

The stories of the people of this land, Wewa said, come from a time when animals were the people in charge. When humans were created, animals made agreements with them. Consider humans’ ancient agreement with dogs: We feed and shelter them, give them affection and care, and in turn, for innumerable generations, they have hunted our prey and guarded our homes. 

The people of the Columbia Basin have a similar agreement with salmon. It’s the most honored animal, the first to sacrifice itself in a contract of reciprocal care: The people would care for the salmon and its waters, and the salmon would feed the people. There’s a similar agreement with the oldest inhabitant of the watershed—and one of the oldest creatures in the world—the Pacific lamprey. Or, as most Northwest Natives call them, eels.

Lamprey have lived on Earth for 450 million years. To them, dinosaurs were a passing fad, and the North American continent is a fairly recent development. Lamprey swim out to sea as juveniles, looking for hosts like salmon to parasitize until they are mature enough to swim up some other river to spawn. Adult lamprey are calorie-dense and slow, protecting their hosts and cousins, the salmon, by acting as a predation buffer in another gesture of reciprocal care. 

Though lamprey play a key role in Pacific watershed ecosystems, they remain understudied outside of tribal fisheries. They’re the target of misplaced disdain, in part because they’re easily confused with sea lamprey, an Atlantic species that caused ecological havoc in the Great Lakes after a 19th century shipping canal allowed them to invade. Pacific lamprey are a different species, in a different ecosystem; they belong here, just like the people they sustain.

In the 1940s, European settlers commercially harvested as many as 500,000 lamprey a year, but tribal harvests until that point had kept the population in careful balance.

As far back as the memory archive reaches, people have fished for eels in this watershed. Lamprey climb wet rocks with their sucker mouths, so waterfalls are good places to catch them. Celilo Falls was a dangerous place for eeling, so people went to places like Willamette Falls, Celilo’s younger cousin. In its heyday, it was an international destination for summer eeling. Elders remember elders who remember trails that connected the falls to central Oregon. Camps lined both sides of the Willamette and the Clackamas River, which branches off below the falls. 

Wewa and other elders are clear that their ancestors were not nomads. Families returned to permanent homes, making seasonal trips to where food thrived. This non-European approach to agriculture ensures that both people and ecosystems flourish. In its healthy state, the Willamette Valley was a food-producing white oak savanna, bright blue in springtime with flowering carpets of delicious camas roots. That’s where it got its name: “Willamette” is a French corruption of lámt, the Ichishkíin word for blue, Wewa said. “They ruined it.”

For the millions of lamprey that returned from the ocean to spawn in the Willamette Valley, the first obstacle they faced was Willamette Falls. In the late 1800s, settler accounts described the 1,500-foot-long, four-story-high falls as “completely covered” in eels during the summer runs—three layers deep, in some places. Historical photos give an idea of how the rocks looked blanketed in eels, some latched onto each other’s backs, rendering the boulders as shaggy as mastodons. In the 1940s, European settlers commercially harvested as many as 500,000 lamprey a year, but tribal harvests until that point had kept the population in careful balance. This is an animal as old as time, an agreement as old as humanity. But the last century—a microscopic sliver of time—could mark the end of lamprey.

Since industrialization, lamprey numbers have dropped by 90%, largely because of dams. According to some Natives, public antipathy toward the species hasn’t helped. Willamette Falls is one of the last places where there are still enough lamprey to harvest. There, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, and the Nez Perce Tribe—all of whom retain treaty fishing rights at Willamette Falls—boat upriver between industrial structures to harvest lamprey at the falls. These four tribes comprise the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC), an organization that enforces treaty rights and promotes conservation of the basin’s aquatic life. Every year, CRITFC coordinates eeling trips with tribes.

Eeling teams consist of at least two people: one to hold the net, the other to catch the eels. Plucking them off the rocks is easy enough with cotton work gloves, which provide the best traction against eels’ dolphin-smooth skin. Or, if an eel is hiding in an underwater crevice, where the animals like to sleep during the day, the fishers use a gaff, a slender stick with a sturdy three-pronged fishhook electrical-taped to the end. With this, they can feel around in a pool, or reach into an overhead crack, and hook the eel with a quick snap.

To work a waterfall, crews start at the bottom; eels will spook and stampede if they sense danger or smell blood in the current. Sometimes, eelers use this to their advantage, sticking a net or a trap at the downspout of a rockpool and scaring the eels into it from behind. When a dipnet is full, the crew transfer the catch eel by eel into burlap bags, then carry the pulsing, writhing sacks over the boulders to the boat.

Water lapped the dock at a dark 4 a.m., and a grumpy chill settled on the shoulders of the Yakama Nation Fisheries eeling crew as they waited for the outboard motorboat to ferry them upriver to the falls. While any tribal member can organize eeling trips, the fisheries department conducts its own trips to get eels for elders, those in need, and ceremonial uses. The boat’s driver, a teddy bear-faced man in his mid-50s with a bandanna tied over a loose knot of gray hair, lit a cigarette, apparently the only person unfazed by the cold or the early hour.

“All this is pretty tame to me,” he laughed. He said he used to work “30-hour days” running a commercial salmon fishing operation at Lake Celilo, where Celilo Falls used to be. He reminisced about his glory days at Willamette Falls in the late ’80s and early ’90s, claiming, with a sly smile, that he caught so many eels, he’s probably the reason they’re in decline. Five thousand pounds in a day, he said. “I’ve been there, done that, 30 years ago, 40 years ago.”

The boat driver is Evans Lewis Jr., a veteran fisherman now serving as the assistant manager of the Yakama Nation Fisheries’ sturgeon hatchery. He’s the type who hangs around the moored boat talking shit and spinning yarns while the younger folks work. Lewis said he knows the best eeling holes from previous generations, where lamprey still gather by the thousands. He pointed out the best route along the boulders: Don’t hug the ridge, he said. Swing out in a wide arc, closer to the water line. He described techniques no one uses anymore: Drilling drainage holes in a metal trash can is easier, he said, than hauling gunny sacks of eels back across the rocks. “Nobody fishes like I do,” Lewis told me and grinned.

Portland General Electric (PGE) has operated a hydroelectric power plant and dam on the west side of the falls since 1888. Each year, when the rush of spring rainwater and snowmelt slows, workers install boards along the rim of the falls to divert more water to their turbines. This leaves the rocks exposed—and thousands of lamprey climbing them.

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Many that aren’t harvested will end up stranded in crevices and die. The tribes coordinate with PGE on the timing of the flashboard installation so they can start harvesting within a day. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife stipulates that harvesting is allowed only from Friday to Monday. The Yakama Nation, being sovereign, does not consider itself beholden to this state law, but it usually schedules eeling on weekends anyway, partly to avoid political conflict.

The Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission tribes have agreed not to eel on the west side of the falls, which provides the best lamprey passage from the lower basin to the Willamette Valley tributaries, to counterbalance the harvesting and to honor their agreement with eels.

Even with the flashboards in place, some water still slips through and slithers across the basalt shelf. The fat and mighty waterfall becomes a series of slender ones. Natural stone steps rise like Tolkienesque staircases alongside the plunging water. The boulders are covered in algae, and it takes felt-bottomed wading boots to keep from slipping all over the raw, uneven landscape.

A wiry, middle-aged Yakama Nation Fisheries technician with steely features beneath his ballcap brim, Rod Begay, told me he’s been eeling at Willamette Falls nearly every year since 1994. He couldn’t recall ever seeing any accidents. Other crew members agreed. Tribal members know to go slowly, deliberately across the rocks. It was apparent in their movements: Nobody was out there to show off or get an adrenaline rush. Nobody was Tom Cruise. “It’s safety first,” Begay said matter-of-factly. Despite the danger, the noise, and the thin pink of eel blood on cotton gloves, the work feels peaceful, like most fishing.

The eels climb slowly and surely, too, resting in one place for a while before snapping into motion. To climb, a lamprey compresses its body and flails upward, gaining an inch or two of ground like a baby learning to crawl. After a succession of bursts, it pauses, pumping its gills and gathering energy. Lamprey can survive for about half an hour out of the water. In some crevices, dozens dangle like rock-colored ribbons, powering up for the next stretch. They can even jump along the underside of a ledge using their sucker mouths, if the surface is wet.

A team of three Yakama youngsters worked one waterfall. In sparkling earrings and a freshly cut fade, tribal fisheries technician and college basketball player Kupkana Leavitt was eeling for the first time under the instruction of Clint Blodgett, a fish culturist whose own first time was just last year. Standing ankle-deep in a pool partway up the cliffs, Leavitt jabbed a gaff into a crevice and poked around. Blodgett told him to hook more quickly. With a twist of the arm, Leavitt drew back the gaff, and there was his first lamprey, lashing and flailing on the hook. With his free hand, he wrested it from the end of the gaff and dropped it into a dipnet held by another teenaged first-timer, fish culturist Daeja Rosander, who looked bored behind her facial piercings but worked steadily nonetheless. Leavitt twisted a gunny sack shut and motioned to Rosander, who grabbed a zip tie from a stash tucked into her bootleg. It was kind of fun being out there, she said, but also kind of a pain in the ass. Leavitt said it felt weird to catch his first eels. “I’m still getting used to it.” They weren’t necessarily motivated by a love of eels or cultural traditions; they had to be there, they said, because of their jobs. That’s one way the older eelers get the younger generation involved: just make them fish. They’ll appreciate it later.

Begay worked a nearby cove with another longtime eeler, easily navigating intimidating sections of the falls. Farther south, where Lewis had said the best water hole was located, laughter rang out. Dave Blodgett III, Yakama Nation Fisheries’ technical services coordinator and Clint’s cousin, was rib-deep in a cold pool at the base of a waterfall, hooting and hollering as he dunked and resurfaced with eels in his gloved hands, clearly having way more fun than the teens. Later, he confessed it was his first time eeling, too. Until that day, he’d only seen this operation from the paperwork side.

The cold water makes it hard to breathe at first, but it’s not as frigid as you’d expect. When you dunk in, you immediately feel slippery eel skin slithering between your legs and around the tops of your wading boots. It sounds easy: to catch a lamprey, just reach in and grab it. But underwater, they tumble like loose rope. They don’t have bones, and remarkably, they can swim backwards.

If you do get hold of one, they’re strong and easy to drop—not to mention scary-looking, seen face to face. It’s like wrestling a sentient phallus with vaginal dentata. But then again, it’s also just a fish: simple, sacred, ancient, and perfectly evolved. Lamprey are not dangerous. Despite their appearance, they have a gentle nature. Their sucker latch doesn’t even hurt; it feels like a hickey. Most host fish with lamprey scars remain otherwise healthy.

After working for a while, Dave Blodgett and his team took a 20-minute break to let the pool refill with climbing lamprey. He explained that in addition to keeping the culture of eeling alive, tribes are working to return eels to the upper tributaries. “We catch fish, we want to put fish back,” he said.

Tribal harvest of the lamprey at Willamette Falls, Oregon. (© Oregon Zoo / photo by Michael Durham / Flickr)

Tribal harvest of the lamprey at Willamette Falls, Oregon. (© Oregon Zoo / photo by Michael Durham / Flickr)

“The tribes will be the ones to get them there, as opposed to state and federal agencies,” he added. “The reason that there’s salmon in these rivers still is because tribes took over.” The crew hoisted sacks full of eels over their shoulders and carefully traversed the boulders back to the boat, where Lewis waited with a cooler. 

During a moment of downtime, Lewis talked about Lake Celilo. After his younger brother drowned in a fishing accident there, Lewis sold all his equipment—including his boats and 150 gill nets—and didn’t fish for a decade. Most of the elders who fished at Celilo Falls are gone now, too. “Except for my uncle,” he grinned. He showed me a picture of his mom’s first cousin—a pretty close relative, in the Native world. Uncle Jerry was a councilman, Lewis said, and influential in the tribe. Lewis would go to him when he needed help. “He’s about my last uncle,” Lewis said. “I know I’m creeping up in age cause I’m running out of uncles. No more grandmas, grandpas anymore.” Maybe he’s becoming the kind of uncle he once needed, I said. He just took a drag on his cigarette and returned to the topic of work, and fish.

Lewis made sure the crew had gunny sacks, extra work gloves, and cold bottles of water. Sometimes he’d shoulder a full sack across the boulders himself. One sack can hold 60 to 80 eels, and weigh as many pounds. The crew took out 16 full bags on a Friday, then returned at night, when lamprey are more active. Lewis counted 2,402 eels from that weekend. With around 1,500 Yakama elders and whole communities to feed, they’d be returning the next weekend for more. But even a haul of this size won’t deprive the upper Willamette tributaries of spawning lamprey. It’s not the harvest that threatens the species. It’s mostly dams.

Lewis pointed to the west side, where the mainstem of the falls gushed through a flow-control structure in the dam, and a channel looped around to the base of the fish ladder. “We can’t go over there, but man, they’re 10-, 12-feet-deep, just full of eels,” he said with what may or may not have been a fisherman’s exaggeration—maybe in 500 years, his stories will be legends, too. The Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission tribes have agreed not to eel on the west side of the falls, which provides the best lamprey passage from the lower basin to the Willamette Valley tributaries, to counterbalance the harvesting and to honor their agreement with eels. “So we can have future eels,” he said. “Root stock.” 

A blue heron waited, silhouetted on a log near the fish ladder’s whitewater. A loose cloud of flycatchers dipped and darted, intercut by drifting gulls and flapping cormorants. Above them glided a few osprey, a swirling cone of vultures, and the occasional bald eagle against a quilt of Northwest jersey-knit gray. Condors were noticeably absent. Sandpipers scurried through puddles. Geese nested in the wreckage of the old Blue Heron Paper Mill. Despite a century of industrial degradation, the falls are still a gathering place.

“Sea lions, they come in here,” Lewis said, pointing to the water lapping at the boat. “They’d be swimming around with about four or five eels in their mouths. They’re pretty crazy. Yeah, I’m surprised we don’t see any now.” The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has secured special federal permission to kill sea lions at Willamette Falls, because they gobble up so many endangered fish. To get here, the marine mammals journey nearly 100 miles through fresh water up the Columbia, then another 26 miles up the Willamette through downtown Portland and its Superfund site. Apparently, a bite of fresh lamprey is worth it.

Lewis prefers his eels barbecued over alderwood. And he won’t let anybody else prepare them for him. “If I’m going to eat fish, I’m going to cook it,” he stated flatly. A drifting segment of log clunked against the hull, as if conjured by magic. “Alderwood,” Lewis said, pointing. Rosander, shoulder-deep in the water, hoisted it up to him.

After two weekends of harvesting, the Yakama Nation hosted their lamprey celebration at Meldrum Bar Park. They set up shade structures on the grass and towed in a trailer-mounted barbecue for the fresh catch. Lewis was there, grilling segments of lamprey, and Daeja Rosander and Clint Blodgett sparred to pass the time. “She’s Daeja Stands-Around,” Blodgett said, chuckling.

“Shut up,” Rosander replied, half-smiling as she filleted salmon with practiced maneuvers on a fold-out table. She’s been preparing salmon since the fourth grade, she said. 

Several tribal members had warned me about the eels’ flavor: They’re an acquired taste, they said, they’re not everyone’s favorite. It only built anticipation for my first bite. Lamprey tastes the way river sediment smells. The outer skin resists your teeth with a rubbery pop, like a juicy bratwurst. But inside, the texture is mealy, like liver or smoked oysters, and the flavor is similarly gamey. It’s apparent why lamprey are a divisive dish. 

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Yakama folks brought more than enough eels and salmon to feed tribal members and the general public alike—all free of charge, offered in the spirit of Native generosity and to raise awareness about Pacific lamprey.

Elders spoke about the eel’s importance. The contemporary resurgence in lamprey conservation is largely attributable to one Nez Perce elder, the late Elmer Crow Jr., who spent the latter part of his life visiting classrooms to get kids excited about eels. He’d encountered a solitary lamprey while fishing in 1972 and felt it was trying to tell him something. “How do we let something that’s 450, 500 million years old go extinct?” Crow said in the 2015 lamprey documentary short The Lost Fish. “Shame on us, the whole bunch of us, for not paying attention to what was going on.”

Dams like the one that drowned Celilo Falls are among seven major threats to Pacific lamprey. 

His son, Jeremy FiveCrows, who works as communications director for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, and FiveCrows’ mother, Lynda Crow, who is Elmer’s widow, told me about Elmer Crow’s legacy. FiveCrows said his father’s use of the word “us” instead of “you” was “very deliberate,” even though the Nez Perce could hardly be blamed for lamprey’s current peril. His mother nodded. “We all have a responsibility, if you’re here, to the lampreys,” FiveCrows said. They’d just marked the nine-year anniversary of the day Elmer Crow drowned while saving his 7-year-old grandson’s life. His death, like his conservation work, was an act of service to future generations.

Wilson Wewa recalled when a busload of elders visited Willamette Falls in the early ’80s. One elder, a quiet woman who kept to herself, sat for a while in silence overlooking the falls. Wewa asked if she was OK. She showed him a flat place on one rock and said it was where her family used to clean eels. As a little girl, she’d wash the rock with a bucket and watch the eel blood drain into the crevices. This was where she camped every summer before factories encircled the falls. 

Wilbur Slockish, who was 13 when Celilo Falls drowned, is an elder now, and Klickitat River chief. He said he doesn’t eat Willamette eels because of the water’s industrial degradation. Years after Celilo disappeared, Slockish encountered Shoshone Falls while on a road trip. The roar reminded him so much of Celilo that he spread out a blanket, lay down, and listened for over two hours, drifting in memories of the sound that lulled him to sleep on those boyhood summer nights. “Man, I missed that sound,” he said. “It wasn’t as loud as Celilo,” and it lacked the familiar mist. “But it kind of helped me remember it.”

Eventually, a park ranger stopped to check on him. “I’m just listening to these falls,” Slockish said.

“You must be from the Celilo area,” the ranger replied.

Dams like the one that drowned Celilo Falls are among seven major threats to Pacific lamprey. A restoration guide, compiled by state and federal agencies in collaboration with tribes, lists the threats: dams and degraded river-water quality, along with dredging, dewatering for irrigation, culverts and fish screens, riverbank degradation from development, and habitat conditions at the estuary. Dams are generally considered the worst. There are more than 250 in the Columbia watershed. Only some have fish ladders, most of which were built for salmon and aren’t navigable by lamprey. To help with their passage, tribal fishery crews hand-deliver mature eels past the dams to the upper tributaries to spawn. It’s a laborious effort they hope will keep the species going until dams are removed—a long-term intergenerational goal.

Pacific lamprey attach to the viewing window at Bonneville Dam as they migrate up the Columbia River to breeding grounds, Aug. 8, 2022. (Photo credit: USFWS - Pacific Region/Flickr)

Pacific lamprey attach to the viewing window at Bonneville Dam as they migrate up the Columbia River to breeding grounds, Aug. 8, 2022. (Photo credit: USFWS – Pacific Region/Flickr)

Gravel crunched under the tires of a flatbed truck on a frisbee golf course at the edge of the upper Yakima River. It carried two massive blue coolers that held 120 mature lamprey, captured below the lower Columbia’s Bonneville Dam and transported upstream for release. It was World Fish Migration Day, and Yakama Nation Fisheries was hosting an event to educate the public. They invited families to central Washington to release hatchery-reared adult lamprey to spawn. The fisheries crew placed a PVC half-pipe chute to guide the eels down the riverbank like a waterslide.

Little by little, families trickled in for the festivities, moving from table to table to learn about the science of freshwater ecosystem conservation, or to do some fish-themed arts and crafts. Organizers gave out lamprey coloring books, lamprey water bottles, keychains made of keratin lamprey teeth, and temporary tattoos that look like oral discs. The day culminated in the release. Native and non-Native children crowded around, wriggling their hands into adult-sized cotton work gloves as they waited for a chance to hold a real, live lamprey and drop it down the chute into the river. 

Lamprey are incredibly fecund, laying between 100,000 and 230,000 eggs, and with any luck, some of these eels’ offspring will mature, swim out to sea, and return upriver to make little rock nests with their sucker mouths, intertwine their bodies, and spurt out the droplets that will become the next generation. Some will end up on the grill or the drying rack to feed the elders and soothe the babies, fulfilling their ancient agreement with the people.

A sprinkling of raindrops sent people scrambling for jackets and zipping up hoodies, as a procession of clouds drifted upstream, supporting the whole process with its own regenerative cycle that will one day carry the next generation of juvenile lamprey out to sea. On the surface, it might seem paradoxical to release some eels at the Yakima while cooking others at the Willamette. But it’s another reciprocal relationship, a time-tested conservation strategy that prioritizes harmony and balance—this ancient practice is futuristic, too. Lamprey, our underwater elders, connect us to the legends and memories of the past and to the hopes we hold for the future.

After the children released their eels, they returned to the flatbed for more. “They’re really slippery,” one kid said, as others shrieked and laughed, sharing and taking turns. When these children are elders remembered by elders, which agreements will endure? Will those generations have evolved more perfectly to live, like the lamprey, in harmony with their siblings and cousins? Maybe by then Celilo Falls will have returned. Or perhaps Willamette Falls will have drowned, too, lost in the mists of memory and legend.   

This article originally appeared in High Country News, and is reprinted with permission.

B. Toastie (they/them) is an award-winning journalist and a staff writer for High Country News writing from the Pacific Northwest. They’re a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. Read more >

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