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Groups push feds to protect bloodsucking lampreys

By John Driscoll The Times-Standard 3/5/04



A slate of environmental groups is demanding the federal government act to protect four species of eel-like bloodsucking fish known as lamprey.

The 12 groups in three West Coast states claim the government hasn't taken the necessary steps to list the lampreys as threatened or endangered. They had first asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to consider taking the action in January 2003.

Lamprey are fish that suck blood and tissue from other fish with jawless, toothed mouths. Pacific lamprey, river lamprey, western brook lamprey and Kern brook lamprey have seen their numbers seriously diminish over the past 50 years.

The environmental groups point to dams, agricultural and forest management and urbanization of watersheds as key problems facing the ancient fish.

"The main thing is that we want these streams to come back and obviously these lamprey are important fish," said Tim McKay of the Northcoast Environmental Center.

American Indians on the Klamath and Trinity rivers catch lampreys for food using long, conical mesh tubes or by hooking them with a long wire hook and tossing them onto shore.

McKay said the 60-day notice to sue the government supports a continued tribal fishery.

Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Jenny Valdivia said the agency has no money to pursue Endangered Species Act listings at the present.

"We don't have any money to do anything that's not court ordered," Valdivia said.

Data on the lampreys are fair in some areas and poor in others. Without discretionary funding, Fish and Wildlife is unlikely to begin collecting the necessary information, Valdivia said.

Adult lampreys dig into river-bottom gravel to lay eggs, then die. Unlike salmon which hatch and leave the system within a year, lampreys feed for up to six years on algae found in silt in the gravel before making their way to the ocean. While feeding, they are vulnerable to changes in river conditions.

But the lamprey is a forgotten fish among water managers. McKay said he's seen pools full of dead lamprey in rivers like the Scott and Shasta, "where they dewater first and ask questions later."

The 12 groups threatening suit are Umpqua Watersheds, Center for Biological Diversity, Environmental Protection Information Center, Friends of the Eel, Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, Native Fish Society, Northcoast Environmental Center, Oregon Natural Resources Council, Siskiyou Regional Education Project, Steamboaters, Umpqua Valley Audubon Society and Washington Trout.





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