Tribal-led conservation helps revive an ancient fish in Wenatchee River

By Sarah Ortiz, Student Conservation Association intern

On an overcast afternoon, I find myself hauling bins to the banks of the Wenatchee River with fellow biologists. I struggle to grip the handles as something alive and energetic thrashes inside. I peer curiously over the rim, and my gaze is met with a writhing mass of Pacific lamprey.

Pacific lamprey are some of the oldest fish alive today and were once abundant in the upper Wenatchee River in Washington. Today, these ancient fish are far less common. The Yakama Nation Fisheries, in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), is using generations of traditional knowledge and modern science to tackle this potential conservation catastrophe.

Pacific lamprey travel between river systems and the ocean, traversing miles of river and multiple dams in order to spawn in the Columbia River Basin.

Many Tribes have deep cultural ties to the Pacific lamprey and have been harvesting the species as a food source for millennia. Because of this, Tribal fisheries were among the first organizations to address the Pacific lamprey population decline in the upper Wenatchee.

In addition to their cultural significance, Pacific lamprey perform many ecosystem services, but lamprey conservation is still often overlooked. Ann Grote, a Service biologist, attributes this lack of attention to a lack of perceived economic value. “Salmon, to the dominant culture, have more perceived value. People are sport fishing for salmon… people are eating salmon, so in the bigger economy they are more valuable,” she explains.

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