Lamprey study part of Elwha River restoration

The lamprey, an eel-like fish with leech-like habits, has a role that is important to the marine environment. The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe fisheries staff will be exploring that role next year with a lamprey study on the North Olympic Peninsula.

The tribe recently received a $74,000 grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) for the study. The project will look at lamprey’s distribution, migration patterns, genetics and habitat preferences in the lower Elwha River and watersheds along the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

“Lamprey were once as abundant as salmon in the Elwha River but they suffered the same environmental pressures during the past 100 years,” said Larry Ward, the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe’s fisheries biologist. “The lamprey is a traditional food for the tribe. Its role in marine ecosystem is valuable.”

While lamprey is an important food for salmon, they are also preferred by sealions and seals. This helps reduce predator pressure of marine mammals on salmon, Ward said. Because they are filter feeders in the juvenile stage, lampreys help preserve water quality for other species.

To help complete the two-year project, the tribe will collaborate with USFWS, the Siletz Tribe in Oregon, U.S. Geological Survey, students from Peninsula College and local groups, such as StreamKeepers and the North Olympic Salmon Coalition.

This study is also part of the overall management plan for the restoration of the river’s ecosystem. Two hydroelectric dams built on the river in the early 1900s, the 108-foot Elwha Dam and 210-feet Glines Canyon Dam, are expected to be removed within the next 10 years. The dams have radically changed the characteristics of the river, impeding on its rich habitat.


– Three types of lamprey reside in the region: Pacific (Lampetra tridentate), river (Lampetra ayresi) and western brook (Lampetra richardsoni).

– The lamprey is very smooth and slimy to the touch. Its mouth is adapted for clinging and sucking.

– A lamprey has no true fins, jaws, or bones and can grow up to 30 inches in length and weigh more than a pound.

– Lamprey reside from Baja California to the Bering Sea

– Like a salmon, the Pacific and river lamprey are anadromous – it is born in freshwater streams, migrates to the ocean, and returns to fresh water as adults to spawn. Western brook lamprey spend their entire lives in freshwater.

Source: Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission and


For more information, contact: Larry Ward, Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe fisheries biologist, at (360) 457-4012 ext. 17 or [email protected].