The Lost Fish
By Justin Lucas
Lamprey was a gambler, okay. He was a gambler. Coyote was the Creator. . . . He’s going about his business and he’s along the river, there. And [then t]here’s Lamprey . . . he’s down there, and he’s been talking to Beaver and Muskrat. Coyote [comes along and] says, “What’s going on?” [Beaver and Muskrat say,] “Lamprey is down there and he’s playing stick game, bone game, and he’s beating everybody.” So, Coyote walks down to the bank and says, “Hey what’s going on? . . . [Hey Lamprey] let me play you?” [And Lamprey says,] “Alright.” Coyote beats him on the first round, and he’s taking his stuff. Then he beats him again. Now Eel is sitting there and he has no possessions, nothing no more to gamble with [and he says,] “One more game, [come’on] Coyote, one more?” Coyote asks, “What you gonna bet with?” [Lamprey,] “I’m gonna bet you my arm, that I’m gonna beat you finally.” So, Coyote plays him again, and beats him . . . . [Lamprey says,] “I’m gonna beat you this time Coyote. I’m gonna gamble you my leg.” [He loses]. Lamprey is sitting there with no arms, and no legs. Coyote looks at him and says, “You have nothing to gamble with anymore” and he kicks him into the river, “and because your mouth got you into trouble, that’s what you’re going to suck on the rocks with”. . . . He is a fish. He belongs to this river. He’s Native to this . . . system . . . . This river needs him. And that’s the bottom line.
This ancient native story underscores the intrinsic importance of the Pacific lamprey to the culture of the indigenous tribes of the Pacific Northwest. These fish are valued not only for their cultural and ecological significance, but also for their value as a food source and as a medicinal remedy. Lamprey are seen as a spiritual elder in Native cultures, and have migrated up the rivers of the Columbia River basin in order to reproduce for hundreds of millions of years.
The Pacific lamprey is a fish species that terrifies many who view it at first, with images of murderous intent running rampant through imaginative minds. This could not be farther from the true nature of the fish. While their fearsome looking mouths are used for latching onto a host, these fish solely feed on cold-blooded creatures, thus they do not pose a threat to humans. In addition, lamprey do not feed during their migration through freshwater systems, exclusively feeding during their time in the ocean. The primary use of their toothy mouth is for holding themselves onto rocks in particularly turbulent areas of their upriver trek. This trek is becoming increasingly difficult, and essentially impossible; however, as the rivers that lamprey rely on to migrate become dammed up for residential, agricultural, and hydroelectric use.
The push to clean energy is one that is pivotal to the well-being of both our planet in its essence and in maintaining the biodiversity that maintains its stability. As the gravity of climate change begins to be more understood by the general public, shifting towards energy sources such as solar, wind, geothermal, and hydroelectric is becoming more viable. Despite the importance of this shift, it presents a multitude of new issues. Hydroelectric power, in specific, threatens aquatic ecosystems through obstruction of the river continuum preventing important nutrient flows and migration patterns of native species.
There has been a large effort in recent years to allow for the passage of popular game fish such as salmon through these now obstructed channels, yet these efforts largely ignore the lamprey. While salmon ladders allow for passage for the strong swimming Pacific salmon species that inhabit the area, the lamprey is unable to utilize these passages due to their inability to jump out of the water and combat high currents. This discrepancy highlights the prioritization of predominantly white industries such as sportfishing over the cultural needs of the Native communities that have stewarded the lands of North America for millenia. This draws into question what driving factors should be behind conservation efforts, and whether ecological and cultural importance is more significant than commercial value.
This ancient native story underscores the intrinsic importance of the Pacific lamprey to the culture of the indigenous tribes of the Pacific Northwest. These fish are valued not only for their cultural and ecological significance, but also for their value as a food source and as a medicinal remedy.