In 2007, the Nez Perce Tribe’s Pacific lamprey restoration team, led by the late Elmer Crow, released a group of lamprey into Newsome Creek, a small tributary of the South Fork Clearwater River in Idaho. They had been collected from the lower Columbia River and transported 400 miles upriver to spare them from the risky journey passing the remaining dams and increase their likelihood of reproducing.
The Nez Perce Tribe, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, and Yakama Nation have been conducting Pacific lamprey translocation efforts like this since 2000, in areas including the Yakima, Methow, Wenatchee, Tucannon, and Umatilla rivers. Through this work, the tribes have hoped to prevent extinction and increase abundance of lamprey larvae and juveniles in waterways that historically supported populations of this culturally important fish but were either struggling or locally extinct. The ultimate objective is that these translocations will lead to Columbia Basin Pacific lamprey populations that are healthy enough to support a sustainable tribal harvest as they had since time immemorial.
“When these programs began, there was no guarantee translocation would even work, since the technique had never been used on lamprey before,” said Aja DeCoteau, CRITFC executive director. “Despite this, the tribes pressed on, not only from confidence stemming from their successes rebuilding salmon populations, but also from our cultural obligation to help these fish that were disappearing throughout the Columbia Basin.”
Now, with over a decade of data, researchers at CRITFC’s Hagerman Genetics Laboratory have published their research in Transactions of the American Fisheries Society that show the first direct evidence that the tribes’ translocation programs in the Snake River basin are working. The research found that translocation increased the production of juvenile lamprey in the interior Columbia Basin and demonstrated that these offspring successfully migrated to the Pacific Ocean and could one day return as adults. Their findings were published this week as a featured article titled “Pacific lamprey translocations to the Snake River boost abundance of all life stages” in the peer-reviewed journal Transactions of the American Fisheries Society.
The research found that the translocated adults produced more offspring than the adults arriving in those streams on their own, demonstrating that translocating adults to suitable habitats in the Snake River increased overall productivity.
“No matter how many adults are released in an area, around half of them contribute offspring,” said Tod Sween, the Nez Perce lamprey biologist.
The research also confirmed the potential for the translocation program to restore Pacific lamprey to rivers and streams where they had been wiped out, which has both ecological and cultural benefits.
Aaron Jackson, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation lamprey research biologist added, “In 2018, a tribal fishery on Pacific lamprey was opened in the Umatilla River basin—the first one in 60 years,” said Jackson. “The tribes’ efforts and proactive initiatives have a large role in these recent increases in abundance and we have the data to prove it.”
The data is filling in gaps in the biology of Pacific lamprey that have been difficult to study in the past and provide information that is specifically tailored to each region and subbasin. For instance, researchers discovered that a small percentage of adults spend not one, but two winters in freshwater before spawning. They also found evidence that Pacific lamprey from the Snake River may grow larger than other spawning segments in the Columbia Basin because they spend five years in the ocean, a much longer period than previously thought.
Researchers weren’t surprised that they hadn’t found any returning adult offspring of the lamprey translocated in 2007 by 2018 when the study ended because they estimated the life span to extend beyond the study period. However, using the study findings, they predicted that to happen by 2021. Shortly after the study was accepted for publication, an adult offspring of translocated adults was found among the 2020 adult return. The Hagerman Lab determined it was the offspring of two of the fish translocated in the Nez Perce Tribe’s Newsome Creek release back in 2007. This was the first adult offspring produced by translocated parents to be identified since CRITFC and the member tribes began genetic monitoring of the Pacific lamprey translocation programs.
“Up until now, our knowledge of the translocation program’s progress has consisted of information gathered from genetic analysis of larvae and juveniles growing in rivers, streams, and the Pacific Ocean,” said CRITFC Senior Fishery Geneticist Dr. Jon Hess. “Over the years, we have found thousands of offspring from translocated adults.”
The landmark fish was captured at a lower Columbia River dam by the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation lamprey program for their translocation project. It was transported to eastern Oregon and released into the Grande Ronde River on September 21, 2020.
“This fish was born thanks to the forward-looking efforts of Elmer Crow and his team 14 years ago,” said CRITFC Chair Quincy Ellenwood (Nez Perce). “That it ended up being helped upriver to produce offspring in the Snake River basin marks a fitting circle to the tribes’ efforts to protect and restore lamprey.”
Although this adult is the first to be identified, there are likely other adult translocation offspring that returned prior to this and even larger numbers that are projected to return in future years. “One adult Pacific lamprey returning up the Columbia River may not seem like much, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg for these restoration actions,” said CRITFC Commissioner James Marsh (Umatilla).
“When we started, we chose translocation sites based on fairly limited information,” said Tod Sween, the Nez Perce lamprey research biologist. “Now with all this data from genetic monitoring, we know how effective each release group of Pacific lamprey has performed.”
Similar genetic monitoring conducted by this published study in the Snake River has also been applied in the Yakima River to provide information tailored for that specific area. “Juvenile run sizes in the Yakima River have increased by 45 times or more on average since Yakama Nation translocation began and adult counts have shown a 36-fold increase,” said Yakama Nation Fisheries Program lamprey research biologist, Ralph Lampman. “The majority of the juvenile production has been attributed to adult translocation within the Yakima Subbasin based on parentage genetic results.”
This research, along with the constant stream of new data collected by the tribes, is allowing them to monitor ongoing translocation efforts and guide and improve their management to aid species recovery going forward.
The complete published research is available at: https://afspubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1002/tafs.10359