Pacific Lamprey population important to Elwha River restoration

Looking like a Ghostbuster, Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe project biologist Justin Stapleton shoulders a backpack with boxes and switches connected to two long wands before stepping into Morse Creek.

With a wand in each hand, Stapleton wades into the creek, lowering the ends of the wands into the water to create an electric circuit as he searches for Pacific lamprey using a technique called electrofishing. Safe for marine life and humans, the electric circuit stuns the fish or encourages them to swim toward the electric field for survey collection.

Stapleton focuses on lamprey habitat, which includes sandy edges of the creek and dark spaces near logs or large rocks. When a lamprey surfaces, it is quickly captured by a dip net and placed in a bucket.

A lamprey is measured for length as part of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe’s study in Port Angeles urban creeks to better understand lamprey distribution throughout the Olympic Peninsula.

After several passes along the creek, each lamprey is measured for length and weight, and a snip of a DNA sample is taken from its tail. Larger lamprey receive a PIT tag (passive integrated transponder), which helps identify those that have been sampled already.

Lamprey are an important part of the recovering Elwha River ecosystem as they filter water, provide food for fish and wildlife, and contribute nutrients in areas where they spawn.

The lamprey population and its range have shrunk from where they were found historically in the region. Unlike salmon, lamprey have not been widely surveyed and often are overlooked during surveys of other fish species, Stapleton said.

“We’ve been finding ourselves trying to conserve what is probably one of the most broadly distributed freshwater fish in western North America, but we don’t know a lot about it,” he said.

It is relatively unknown how many lamprey occupy the nearby urban streams in Port Angeles. The tribe is expanding its Pacific lamprey monitoring program to obtain more information about lamprey locations and behaviors to help the tribe manage and improve the resilience of the area’s restoration efforts, while updating the lamprey population distribution knowledge on the Olympic Peninsula.

Lamprey nest and larval surveys are taking place in five Port Angeles urban streams: Tumwater, Valley, Peabody, Ennis and Morse creeks. The project includes partnerships with Clallam County, Pacific Lamprey Conservation Initiative and private homeowners.

Lamprey populations are threatened by stream and floodplain degradation, dewatering streams and rivers, poor flow management and climate change. Looking at distribution and migration patterns will address some of those issues, especially the presence of lamprey in the watershed.

It also will help the understanding of the roles of Pacific and river lamprey in urban streams on the peninsula, Stapleton said, especially as a food source for salmon predators, leading to an increased salmon abundance in the watershed.

Chelsea Behymer, the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe’s science outreach coordinator, records data as Stapleton collects weights and lengths of lamprey sampled from Morse Creek.


Three types of lamprey historically resided in the region: Pacific (Entosphenus tridentatus), river (Lampetra ayresi) and western brook (Lampetra richardsoni).

Lamprey are very smooth and slimy to the touch. Their mouths are adapted for clinging and sucking.

While they look like they belong to the eel family, they are more closely related to sharks and hagfish. Lamprey are considered the second oldest fish, next to hagfish.

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

Pacific lamprey reside from Baja California to the Bering Sea, across to Russia and Japan.

Like salmon, the Pacific and river lamprey are anadromous—born in freshwater streams, migrating to the ocean, and returning to fresh water as adults to spawn. Western brook lamprey spend their entire lives in fresh water.

Top: Justin Stapleton, Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe project biologist, and Enrique Valenzuela, a volunteer with Washington Conservation Corps., search for lamprey to sample in Morse Creek. Story and photos: Tiffany Royal