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Pacific Lamprey Research Aided by Salmon Data Collection

Pacific lamprey may not be pretty, but they provide scientists insight into the same waters shared by Pacific salmon.

by | April 6, 2022

The tooth-lined mouth of a Pacific lamprey.
Lampreys don’t have jaws, or anything that could be called a “mouth.” The tooth-lined opening they use to attach themselves to prey is more accurately called an “oral sucking disc.” Cody Brown

Pacific lamprey have monstrous, toothy mouths and slimy skin — admittedly not the most charismatic of creatures. In Alaska, we have five species of these living fossils: Arctic, Pacific, Alaskan brook, river, and the Western brook lamprey. While the last three only live in fresh water, Arctic and Pacific lamprey share a similar anadromous life history with salmon. Anadromous fish migrate between fresh and salt water during their life cycles.

Born in Salmon Streams

Juvenile lamprey are born in freshwater streams. Here, they spend the first part of their lives in the gravel of stream-beds as filter-feeding ammocoetes. “Ammocoete” is the scientific term for lamprey larva. Young lamprey help keep streams clear and may also help prepare the gravel in some areas for salmon spawning. Both Arctic and Pacific lamprey eventually enter the ocean.

At sea, lamprey begin the parasitic phase of their lives. They use their spiny teeth to attach themselves to larger fish and live on their blood. After this phase of life, lamprey return to their natal streams to spawn and begin the cycle anew. 

Salmon and Lamprey: Linked Destinies

Alaska Native peoples have harvested lamprey for millennia, because they have higher fat content than salmon. We know much about the life cycle of lamprey, but less about the kinds of freshwater systems that support them.

Researchers have recently seen lamprey populations in decline in the coastal waters south of Alaska. These observations have spurred fisheries scientists to come together to form the Pacific Lamprey Conservation Initiative. In Alaska, the initiative is driven forward by the Alaska Freshwater Fish Inventory program. It involves state, federal and non-profit fisheries organizations that are interested in the health of our waters and fish.

How CIAA Can Help Track Lamprey

After hearing Trent Sutton speak at the 2021 Mat-Su Salmon Science and Conservation Symposium regarding the lack of knowledge on Alaskan lamprey species, I knew instantly that Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association (CIAA) could help with this work. While we do not specifically go looking for lamprey, CIAA operates several weirs and have found lamprey in streams where they were not previously known to exist.

In 2019, CIAA nominated Shell Creek for addition into the Anadromous Waters Catalog because of the presence of lamprey ammocoetes. This year, CIAA plans to keep an eye out at all of our sites for lamprey and aims to collect some lamprey samples for our colleagues working on lamprey science. 

This is one of the ways that CIAA aims to maximize the value of dollars spent on fisheries research in our region. It doesn’t cost CIAA much to collect and preserve lamprey samples from these sites but we save the Pacific Lamprey Conservation Initiative thousands of dollars in charter flights of their own.

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