Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Lamprey's Beauty Runs More Than Slime-Deep

Recently on twitter I started following a enterprising Pacific Lamprey named Luna on her journey to spawn. To be clear I don't usually follow any creatures other than my fellow man, but the plight of the Pacific Lamprey has gone largely unnoticed due perhaps to its - shall we say - less than perfect smile.

Not only are its numbers dwindling, but this misunderstood, eel-like fish also suffers the indignity of being unfairly maligned as a junk fish.

While it is true the non-native sea lamprey is causing problems in the Great Lakes, the West Coast varieties shouldn't pay the price for a distant cousin's damage.

In all, about 50 species of lamprey exist, but the one that so plentifully populated the Columbia River and its tributaries is called the Pacific Lamprey.

But numbers alone never earned the Pacific lamprey the respect it deserves. Its reputation as a blood-sucking parasite probably hasn't helped, neither has its appearance, which is something like a cross between a banana slug and a jungle leech with teeth [lots of teeth].

 But even blood-sucking parasites have their place in nature's plan. As more is known about the lamprey, it's clear this homely creature has a role that's far more complex than first impressions would indicate.

Not enough Pacific lampreys remain to adequately fill the species' niche. Counts of Pacific Lamprey at Ice Harbor Dam dropped from 50,000 in the early 1960s to fewer than 1,000 during the 1990s. Counts on the North Umpqua River in Oregon had declined from about 47,000 in 1966 to fewer than 50 a year since 1995.

When the species was plentiful, juvenile lampreys fed on bits of plant material in numbers sufficient to help keep rivers running clear. After spawning, the carcasses replenished nitrogen levels and other nutrients in freshwater streams.

It's true that in their oceangoing blood-sucker stage, Pacific Lampreys attach themselves to salmon and other fish, which sometimes weaken and die as a result. But when the slow-moving Lampreys numbered in the millions, they also provided a salmon substitute for sea lions and other predators, filling the bellies of these would-be salmon killers. The net effect was beneficial.

Traditionally, Mid-Columbia tribes harvested lamprey, using their dried meat for subsistence, ceremonial and medicinal purposes, but not enough of the fish remain. The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation are working to restore the Pacific Lamprey as a way of also preserving their Indian culture.

Both are noble goals. So is following Luna's journey - @LunaTheLamprey

Thursday, June 21, 2012

NE Fish Council Votes For Oversight of Large Trawlers Scooping Up River Herring

The fate of the river herring in Maine and along the Atlantic coast was solidly in the hands of the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC), who gathered in Portland this week.

By midday Wednesday, they had voted to send a recommendation to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to require strict oversight on large mid-water trawlers working three miles off the coast and up to 200 miles out to sea.

More decisions affecting river herring were expected by late in the day. NMFS is likely to act on the NEFMC recommendations before the end of the summer.Recreational and commercial fishermen, among others, have pointed to the need for strict oversight of the large mid-water trawlers that target Atlantic sea herring inshore but also scoop up marine mammals, haddock, and river herring as unintended bycatch.

Alewives and blueback herring, collectively known as river herring, spend most of their lives at sea and have been on the decline for decades, in spite of efforts to improve habitat and build fish ladders so spawning fish can make their way from the sea to freshwater in the spring.

Fishing for river herring is illegal in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island and North Carolina. The fish are currently under review for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act, with a recommendation for or against listing expected this summer.

Like their sea-dwelling cousins, river herring are an important food species in the marine food web, providing food for groundfish, stripers, tuna and others. At sea, river herring often school with Atlantic herring.

Atlantic mid-water trawlers, with a fleet numbering around 40 boats, are among the largest boats fishing in federal U.S. waters today. Mid-water trawlers, such as those operated by O'Hara Corporation in Rockland, tow submerged cone-shaped nets through the midsection of the water column that funnel schooling fish towards the small end of the net, known as the cod end. Working in pairs, with one larger net being pulled behind two boats, trawlers can work an area in a grid pattern, catching up to 1,000,000 pounds of fish in one haul, with the potential to clear out a local river herring population in a day.

There have been no bycatch limits on how many river herring can be caught. Catch caps may be set late Wednesday.

On Wednesday, NEFMC voted to require all mid-water trawlers to carry a scientific observer on board to keep track of bycatch numbers, with industry and the federal government sharing the cost. If NMFS approves this requirement, it is likely to be implemented in spring of 2013.

Source: New England Fishery Management Council