Two Pacific lampreys were brought to the High Desert Museum on Wednesday as part of an effort to restore the threatened population of the jawless, snakelike fish and educate the public about the conservation issues facing the species.

Lampreys, often confused with eels, are more closely related to hagfish or sharks. Historically, lampreys were abundant in the Upper Deschutes Watershed. But now they are rarely seen in the region due to dams and fish passages not suitable for their migration to the Pacific Ocean.

“They are not the most attractive fish by most people’s standards, but they are vitally important to High Desert ecosystems and have a fascinating biology and natural history,” Jon Nelson, the museum’s curator of wildlife, wrote in a letter to colleagues announcing the arrival of the lampreys.

The lampreys came to the museum from members of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. The Umatilla tribe, along with the Nez Perce, Yakama and Warm Springs tribes, are working together to manage the lamprey’s dwindling population.

For several years, the tribes have been moving the lampreys to the Upper Umatilla River basin and other streams in Eastern Oregon and Idaho. The lampreys are collected in places such as Willamette Falls near Oregon City or Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River and are driven upstream to their traditional habitats.

“The two fish we have came from the trans-locating project,” Nelson said Friday. “These are adult fish, 7 to 11 years old, that were born in fresh water. They went out into the ocean, migrated back and were collected.”

Lampreys are prehistoric creatures dating back 450 million years. They are considered one of the first foods for the local tribes and are featured in religious ceremonies, Nelson said.

Lampreys are still harvested by the tribes and shared among families, but are no longer a staple of the tribes’ diet.

“They are a food source and part of the culture and history,” Nelson said.

Not having a strong lamprey population is a blow to the local ecosystem, Nelson said.

Juvenile lampreys are known to the local tribes as “the cleaner of streams” because the fish feed on microorganisms and, in the process, help keep the rivers and streams clean. But that also makes lampreys sensitive to pollution and water quality.

The two lampreys at the museum are being kept in the 710-gallon aquarium at the Autzen Otter exhibit.

The Umatilla tribe will come back this summer for the lampreys and return them to a river to spawn. If all goes well in the next few months, Nelson said, he hopes to house more lampreys on a regular basis. Few institutions or groups keep the lamprey in captivity.

But the lamprey has a skill most fish do not: It can escape captivity.

As a precaution, Nelson said, the museum put a special lid over the aquarium to keep the lampreys from climbing out. Lampreys commonly climb waterfalls using the funnel-like suction of their circular mouths, which are filled with sharp teeth.

“If they do good and are well-received by the public, we will continue to get more fish and do more education outreach,” Nelson said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7820, kspurr@bendbulletin.com

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