Two Pacific lampreys, residents at the High Desert Museum since February, were released Thursday into the upper Umatilla River basin through a re­introduction effort to restore the population of the culturally important fish.

The High Desert Museum housed the two jawless, snakelike fish in partnership with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, which is working with other local tribes to manage the lamprey’s dwindling population.

In the next few weeks, members of the Umatilla tribe will bring another pair of Pacific lamprey to the museum.

Jessica Stewart, associate curator of wildlife at the High Desert Museum, said the museum plans to regularly house and release lampreys, making the prehistoric fish a consistent attraction at the museum.

The lampreys’ presence at the museum has helped educate the public about the often misunderstood creature, Stewart said. At first glance, lampreys startle people with their circular mouths, filled with sharp teeth. But lampreys are a critical part of the ecosystem and are important features of the diet and religious ceremonies of Northwest tribes.

“Their mouths are kind of creepy to look at for many people, but we do a fish talk every day at the museum and try to lean heavily on the lamprey.” Stewart said. “As soon as you inform people about their importance, ecologically and culturally, that stigma goes away pretty quickly.”

The two lampreys at the museum were kept in a 710-gallon aquarium at the Autzen otter exhibit.

Using the suction of their circular mouths, the lampreys were able to pick up and move around rocks and logs on the bottom of the aquarium. Museum staff had to place a lid on top of the aquarium because the lampreys were capable of climbing out. Lampreys use their mouths to climb waterfalls while they migrate through waterways.

“They are a lot stronger than I thought they were,” Stewart said. “They are just pure muscle.”

The two lampreys, one female and the other male, were collected at the Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River after returning from their migration to the Pacific Ocean, where they fed off of various sea life, including rockfish and whales. The lamprey are so full of nutrients after their ocean migration that they do not eat for a year or two before spawning.

“They were two of the easiest animals I’ve ever had to care for,” Stewart said. “When they are in this stage of life, they don’t eat at all.”

After being released into the Umatilla River, the female lamprey will release eggs and spawn and the male will mature for another year before spawning, Stewart said.

Pacific lampreys were historically abundant in the Upper Deschutes watershed, but their population has shrunk from dams and fish passages blocking their migration to the Pacific Ocean.

Through the work of the tribes, about 1,500 have made it upstream this year, double the amount from last year. The tribes collect lampreys at Willamette Falls near Oregon City and the Bonneville Dam and drive them upstream to their traditional habitats in the Umatilla River and other streams in Eastern Oregon and Idaho.

The reintroduction efforts are a way to keep the lamprey from becoming an endangered species.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife considers the Pacific lamprey a species of concern, meaning there is uncertainty about the species but not enough information to list it under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Stewart said the museum is happy to have a small part in the effort to save the lampreys. She is looking forward to handling and watching over the next pair that comes to the museum.

“We definitely know what it is going to take to take care of this next group of lamprey, and all of the challenges associated with a strong fish that can climb,” Stewart said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7820,