All the Fish

A Note on Lampreys

Primeval Instruments of the Imagination

The lamprey. Your standard Sea Lamprey and Pacific Lamprey are roughly flute-sized. Arctic Lamprey? Piccolo. But that jawless maw is not a embouchure hole, so you won’t want to put your mouth on it. And those aren’t finger holes, they lead to gills.

close up of an artic lamprey
Arctic Lamprey 📷 University of Alaska Fairbanks/Trent Sutton
An Alaska Brook Lamprey sucking onto the inside of a beaker. 📷 University of Alaska Fairbanks/Trent Sutton

Lamprey Lifestyle

Lampreys surprisingly share a lot in common with salmon, including anadromy (a life cycle that begins and ends in freshwater with a journey to sea in between). Anadromous species, like Pacific and Arctic Lampreys, spawn in similar habitats to salmon — gravel bottomed freshwater streams —to ensure their offspring start life in a suitable nursery.

A Lamprey caught in the lower Yukon River. 📷 USFWS/Holly Carroll
lamprey in a river sucked onto a camera lens
close up of a lamprey mouth
Business end of a Pacific Lamprey. 📷 Freshwater Illustrated/USFWS
Chad Carpenter cartoon in “Tundra”

Good Lamprey, Bad Rap

Lamprey do have value despite their bad reputation and strange looks (especially in the Great Lakes, where Sea Lamprey have found their way in through the man-made Welland Canal to naïve hosts like Lake Trout). And frankly, they’re just cool.

lamprey with a stone in her mouth
lamprey with a stone in her mouth
A Pacific Lamprey moves a stone. 📷 Freshwater Illustrated/USFWS
Subsistence fishermen harvesting lamprey through the ice in Alaska. 📷 Alaska Department of Fish and Game
Pacific lamprey on a rock
Check out this Pacific Lamprey’s nasal pore and light-sensing third “eye”. 📷 USFWS

Lampreys lovers, learn more:

Listen to our podcast:

Trent Sutton with the University of Alaska Fairbanks and Sabrina Garcia with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game join us to talk about all things lamprey on Fish of the Week! (or wherever you get podcasts). Episode 5 is all about Alaska’s lampreys.

trent sutton in a lamprey mask
sabrina garcia
Trent and Sabrina.

Pacific Lamprey Conservation Initiative

Join with others who are passionate about lampreys. This partnership is a collaboration of Native American tribes and natural resource agencies working to conserve Pacific Lamprey throughout their natural range in California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Alaska. The goal is to achieve long-term persistence of Pacific Lamprey and their habitats and support their traditional tribal cultural use throughout their historic range in the United States.

Pacific Lamprey initiative logo showing a school of lampreys swimming up

Stories from Alaska by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

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