Harvesting and Consuming the Prehistoric, Eel-like Lamprey

Flickr/Creative Commons, Sea lamprey (Petromyzon marinus). Credit: T. Lawrence, Great Lakes Fishery Commission. / A couple years ago, a strange phenomenon happened in Fairbanks, Alaska, in which several foot-long Arctic lampreys fell seemingly from sky, dropped by birds that were preying on the prehistoric sea creatures.

Harvesting and Consuming the Prehistoric, Eel-like Lamprey

As lamprey harvesting season approaches in summer, American Indians prepare to gather and conserve the dwindling species

Indigenous people have hand-wrestled writhing lampreys out of Willamette Falls for thousands of years. Plunging hands into the falls’ powerful flow, they pull eel-like, three-toothed lampreys from surging waters. To grip the slithering lamprey, hunters wear textured gloves.

Lampreys don’t only look prehistoric, they’ve thrived in Pacific waters for 450 million years. More closely related to sharks or hagfish than eels, their parasitic suction cup-mouths allow them to climb slippery, vertical rock sides despite falls thrusting against them. “The cleaner of streams” the fish feed on microorganisms and thus keep local waters clean. Yet this also makes lampreys highly sensitive to pollution and water quality, reported The Bulletin.

Members of the Umatilla tribe , Nez Perce, Warm Springs and Yakama tribes, among others, have long harvested lamprey. Their tribal treaty rights allow them to continue their ancient tradition. But today they are working together to manage the lamprey’s dwindling population.

Most lamprey is frozen, saved for ceremonial feasts. Yet many American Indians enjoy it freshly barbecued. “We have always been harvesting lamprey, taking them back to our longhouses, to our families, to our feast tables,” Sara Thompson of the Columbia River Inter-tribal Fish Commission told The Oregonian.

In southwestern Europe, primarily in Portugal, Spain, and France, and in the northern half of Finland, large lamprey are considered a delicacy. The Portuguese actually prefer to eat lampreys cooked in their own blood, often as lamprey stew with rice, reported Reuters. In Portugal, lampreys can fetch between 25 to 50 euros ($38-$76) in early season. During the Middle Ages, the meatier fish was prized by Romans and widely eaten by the upper classes throughout Europe. It’s rumored that King Henry I of England died from eating “a surfeit of lampreys.”

Flickr, Creative Commons, Rui Ornelas / “Arroz de lampreia acompanhado de vinho verde tinto.” Lamprey with rice, accompanied with red wine, in Portugal

In recent decades, the numbers of lamprey have taken a drastic dive. Bonneville Dam counted some 400,000 about 60 years ago. Today less than 20,000 swim in these Columbia River waters between Oregon and Washington. Willamette Falls in Oregon’s Willamette Valley is the only remaining harvesting site. Presently 38 known species of lampreys live in coastal and fresh waters, though some survive in the open ocean.

In February, two Pacific Lamprey were brought to a 710-gallon aquarium at the Autzen Otter exhibit at the local High Desert Museum from the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, reported The Bulletin. “The two fish we have came from the trans-locating project,” Jon Nelson, the museum’s curator of wildlife, told the publication. “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.”

Alaska Department of Fish and Game A 15-inch-long lamprey

The Umatilla tribe will return the two lamprey to a river this summer to spawn. Adult lampreys actually die after spawning, and their young larvae, ammocoetes, spend several years in the rivers, burrowed in fine sediment, before they undergo a metamorphosis spanning several months.

While Pacific lampreys hover around Oregon, Washington, and toward Europe, Arctic lampreys are actually native to Alaska. Two summers ago, a funny incident occurred in which birds were snatching up lamprey and dropping the squirming critters in flight on unexpecting humans, reported Business Insider.

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