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Last of the lamprey: NW tribes drive effort to save primitive fish

Jeff Barnard of the AP reports from Oregon City, Oregon:

As long as American Indians have lived in the Pacific Northwest, they have looked to a jawless, eel-like fish for food.

Tribes once harvested the lamprey from rivers throughout the Columbia Basin, which stretches from the Oregon coast up into Canada. But with dozens of hydroelectric dams in the way, the fish has followed the path of the buffalo — from a food staple of a people to a curiosity.

Today, the tribes in the Northwest have just one place to go for them: a 40-foot waterfall on the Willamette River flanked by an abandoned paper mill and a power plant, and located about a dozen miles upstream from a Superfund site.

Rick Bowmer / AP

A tribal member tossing a lamprey at Willamette Falls, in Oregon City, Ore. on July 8. As long as Indians have lived in the Northwest, they have looked to the lamprey, a jawless, eel-like fish, for food.

Rick Bowmer / AP

A lamprey caught at Willamette Falls.

Rick Bowmer / AP

Tribal harvesters searching for lamprey at Willamette Falls, the only place in the Pacific Northwest where they can still be fished.

Unlike salmon, which have drawn billions of dollars in government funds to modify dams and restore habitat, the lamprey have gone largely ignored. It's the tribes that still eat them that are driving the effort to bring them back.

The greatest threat the fish now face is the dams, which "will probably lead to their demise," said Aaron Jackson, who heads efforts by the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation — a federally recognized confederation of three Sahaptin-speaking Native American tribes who traditionally inhabited the Columbia River Plateau region — to restore lamprey.

"That's really sad," he said, of a fish that has survived hundreds of millions of years while other animals, such as dinosaurs, didn't. "That something this old would just wink out in my lifetime — that's unfathomable to me."