Home Restaurant As the Pacific Lamprey Declines, Native Tribes Work to Protect Sacred Eel-Like...

As the Pacific Lamprey Declines, Native Tribes Work to Protect Sacred Eel-Like Fish

The roar of the falls was an unrelenting thunder of white noise. It was the mid-1950s, and Celilo Falls, on the border between Washington and Oregon—the oldest continuously inhabited spot in North America—had yet to be destroyed. Sparkling headwaters flowed from British Columbia, Montana, and Wyoming, streams gathering to form the Columbia River, which surged westward through the high desert and the rainy Cascade Mountains until it yawned into the brackish slurry of the Pacific estuary. Year after year, for countless generations, millions of fish stampeded back upstream, fighting the ocean’s current to gain the forested upper tributaries, whose sheltered, transparent waters and gravel substrate provided perfect spawning grounds.

The Great River’s annual rotation of anadromous fish included steelhead trout, sturgeon, coho, chinook and sockeye salmon, chum or dog salmon, and the otherworldly Pacific lamprey— a glossy-gray, eel-like fish with seven round gills bored into its sides like the tone holes of a cedar flute. Back then, whenever the adult fish returned, ocean-fresh and ripe to fill hungry bellies, the people gathered at legacy fishing spots, including Celilo Falls.

Lamprey have lived on Earth for 450 million years. To them, dinosaurs were a passing fad, and the North American continent is a fairly recent development.

Every season had a different run: the fall, spring, and summer chinook, each with its own flavor; fall dog salmon and summer lamprey. On the timber scaffolds that etched the incandescent billows of the falls, fishermen tested their strength and bravery, fighting hound-sized fish with 20-foot-long dipnets until they’d hauled in enough to feed their families for a year, share fish with elders, and trade with neighboring tribes. There were millions of salmon, so many that people said you could walk across the Great River on their backs; some elders boasted that they had. The fishers camped around the falls, their pickup trucks, canvas tents, and hand-crafted houses set among rows of cabin-style apartments, where permanent residents lived in multigenerational households. As the fragrance of smoldering alderwood wafted from smoking sheds, mothers and grandmothers sliced sherbet-colored slabs of fish with practiced hands, or popped dried lamprey tail into the mouths of teething babies to soothe their gums with its pain-killing oil. Children sledded down the nearby dunes on cardboard boxes, threw rocks, fetched firewood, or filled buckets at the water pump.

A boy in bib overalls, Wilbur Slockish, hefted freshly caught fish into a wooden box, and covered it with a wet gunny sack to keep it damp. They were so healthy and strong they stayed fresh even without ice. The river water was clear enough to drink. Downstream, the boy’s grandmother hung white mit’úla filets, or dog salmon, on racks to sun-dry, while his father traversed a precarious-looking scaffold that jutted over the turbulent rapids. The family traveled every year from their home in Wahkiacus, a town named for the family of Slockish’s great-grandmother, a famous Klickitat basket weaver. Umatilla folks traveled from the other direction to trade blankets and hides for Grandma’s dried mit’úlaThe falls and surrounding area were a bustling marketplace.

Wilbur, on the brink of adolescence, was still too young to fish; his 18-year-old cousin had nearly drowned in the rapids, and his grandmother had forbidden him to go near the scaffolds. For now, he processed fish in the mists around the falls, which kept the camps cool even in the August heat. After a while, he took a break to play with his siblings and cousins. At night he fell asleep lulled by the roar of mighty Celilo.

A Pacific Lamprey moves a small stone from its nest, or redd. (Photo credit: Jeremy Monroe, Fresh Waters Illustrated/Flickr)

Fishing these falls was a rite of passage, like getting a driver’s license, but Wilbur Slockish never got to fish them. In the end, it was Celilo Falls that drowned. In 1957, when Wilbur was 13, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the Dalles Dam across the Great River, submerging Celilo Falls in a brazen act of colonization. Wilbur’s father didn’t want him to see this happen, so he took the family away to live in Toppenish. Other families were forced to abandon their homes as the lively, ancient bazaar and the natural wonder that created it both disappeared beneath a reservoir. The sound and mists of Celilo became a memory.

Last July, a gauzy haze hung over the emerald expanse of Meldrum Bar Park in Gladstone, Oregon, refracting the midsummer sun on the season’s hottest weekend so far. The Yakama Nation Pow Wow Drum thumped out a tune as a chain of dancers snaked across the grass in an eel dance. “It takes about 500 years or longer for a fact to turn into a legend or myth,” Wilson Wewa said, peering upward through the soft wrinkles around his small thoughtful eyes. Wewa, an elder and tribal councilman of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, said his people have legends about the time long ago, when animals traveling north were blocked by the great ice sheet covering what’s now called Canada. White academics have long believed that no humans lived here back then. “How would our people make a legend like that if they weren’t here?” Wewa asked, not raising his voice over the music.

Wewa, who wore a button-down long-sleeved shirt and jeans despite the heat, noted that some Western scientists are beginning to acknowledge that Indigenous peoples’ long history on this continent is more than myth or legend. The legends aren’t just stories; they’re stratified memories.

The stories of the people of this land, Wewa said, come from a time when animals were the people in charge. When humans were created, animals made agreements with them. Consider humans’ ancient agreement with dogs: We feed and shelter them, give them affection and care, and in turn, for innumerable generations, they have hunted our prey and guarded our homes. 

The people of the Columbia Basin have a similar agreement with salmon. It’s the most honored animal, the first to sacrifice itself in a contract of reciprocal care: The people would care for the salmon and its waters, and the salmon would feed the people. There’s a similar agreement with the oldest inhabitant of the watershed—and one of the oldest creatures in the world—the Pacific lamprey. Or, as most Northwest Natives call them, eels.

Lamprey have lived on Earth for 450 million years. To them, dinosaurs were a passing fad, and the North American continent is a fairly recent development. Lamprey swim out to sea as juveniles, looking for hosts like salmon to parasitize until they are mature enough to swim up some other river to spawn. Adult lamprey are calorie-dense and slow, protecting their hosts and cousins, the salmon, by acting as a predation buffer in another gesture of reciprocal care. 

Though lamprey play a key role in Pacific watershed ecosystems, they remain understudied outside of tribal fisheries. They’re the target of misplaced disdain, in part because they’re easily confused with sea lamprey, an Atlantic species that caused ecological havoc in the Great Lakes after a 19th century shipping canal allowed them to invade. Pacific lamprey are a different species, in a different ecosystem; they belong here, just like the people they sustain.

In the 1940s, European settlers commercially harvested as many as 500,000 lamprey a year, but tribal harvests until that point had kept the population in careful balance.

As far back as the memory archive reaches, people have fished for eels in this watershed. Lamprey climb wet rocks with their sucker mouths, so waterfalls are good places to catch them. Celilo Falls was a dangerous place for eeling, so people went to places like Willamette Falls, Celilo’s younger cousin. In its heyday, it was an international destination for summer eeling. Elders remember elders who remember trails that connected the falls to central Oregon. Camps lined both sides of the Willamette and the Clackamas River, which branches off below the falls. 

Wewa and other elders are clear that their ancestors were not nomads. Families returned to permanent homes, making seasonal trips to where food thrived. This non-European approach to agriculture ensures that both people and ecosystems flourish. In its healthy state, the Willamette Valley was a food-producing white oak savanna, bright blue in springtime with flowering carpets of delicious camas roots. That’s where it got its name: “Willamette” is a French corruption of lámt, the Ichishkíin word for blue, Wewa said. “They ruined it.”

For the millions of lamprey that returned from the ocean to spawn in the Willamette Valley, the first obstacle they faced was Willamette Falls. In the late 1800s, settler accounts described the 1,500-foot-long, four-story-high falls as “completely covered” in eels during the summer runs—three layers deep, in some places. Historical photos give an idea of how the rocks looked blanketed in eels, some latched onto each other’s backs, rendering the boulders as shaggy as mastodons. In the 1940s, European settlers commercially harvested as many as 500,000 lamprey a year, but tribal harvests until that point had kept the population in careful balance. This is an animal as old as time, an agreement as old as humanity. But the last century—a microscopic sliver of time—could mark the end of lamprey.

Since industrialization, lamprey numbers have dropped by 90%, largely because of dams. According to some Natives, public antipathy toward the species hasn’t helped. Willamette Falls is one of the last places where there are still enough lamprey to harvest. There, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, and the Nez Perce Tribe—all of whom retain treaty fishing rights at Willamette Falls—boat upriver between industrial structures to harvest lamprey at the falls. These four tribes comprise the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC), an organization that enforces treaty rights and promotes conservation of the basin’s aquatic life. Every year, CRITFC coordinates eeling trips with tribes.

Eeling teams consist of at least two people: one to hold the net, the other to catch the eels. Plucking them off the rocks is easy enough with cotton work gloves, which provide the best traction against eels’ dolphin-smooth skin. Or, if an eel is hiding in an underwater crevice, where the animals like to sleep during the day, the fishers use a gaff, a slender stick with a sturdy three-pronged fishhook electrical-taped to the end. With this, they can feel around in a pool, or reach into an overhead crack, and hook the eel with a quick snap.

To work a waterfall, crews start at the bottom; eels will spook and stampede if they sense danger or smell blood in the current. Sometimes, eelers use this to their advantage, sticking a net or a trap at the downspout of a rockpool and scaring the eels into it from behind. When a dipnet is full, the crew transfer the catch eel by eel into burlap bags, then carry the pulsing, writhing sacks over the boulders to the boat.

Water lapped the dock at a dark 4 a.m., and a grumpy chill settled on the shoulders of the Yakama Nation Fisheries eeling crew as they waited for the outboard motorboat to ferry them upriver to the falls. While any tribal member can organize eeling trips, the fisheries department conducts its own trips to get eels for elders, those in need, and ceremonial uses. The boat’s driver, a teddy bear-faced man in his mid-50s with a bandanna tied over a loose knot of gray hair, lit a cigarette, apparently the only person unfazed by the cold or the early hour.

“All this is pretty tame to me,” he laughed. He said he used to work “30-hour days” running a commercial salmon fishing operation at Lake Celilo, where Celilo Falls used to be. He reminisced about his glory days at Willamette Falls in the late ’80s and early ’90s, claiming, with a sly smile, that he caught so many eels, he’s probably the reason they’re in decline. Five thousand pounds in a day, he said. “I’ve been there, done that, 30 years ago, 40 years ago.”

The boat driver is Evans Lewis Jr., a veteran fisherman now serving as the assistant manager of the Yakama Nation Fisheries’ sturgeon hatchery. He’s the type who hangs around the moored boat talking shit and spinning yarns while the younger folks work. Lewis said he knows the best eeling holes from previous generations, where lamprey still gather by the thousands. He pointed out the best route along the boulders: Don’t hug the ridge, he said. Swing out in a wide arc, closer to the water line. He described techniques no one uses anymore: Drilling drainage holes in a metal trash can is easier, he said, than hauling gunny sacks of eels back across the rocks. “Nobody fishes like I do,” Lewis told me and grinned.

Portland General Electric (PGE) has operated a hydroelectric power plant and dam on the west side of the falls since 1888. Each year, when the rush of spring rainwater and snowmelt slows, workers install boards along the rim of the falls to divert more water to their turbines. This leaves the rocks exposed—and thousands of lamprey climbing them.

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