Th­ese eel-like fish look like hor­ror movie mon­sters — and they’re back in SLO Creek

The Tribune (SLO) - - Neighbors - By Mon­ica Vaughan [email protected]­BUNE­NEWS.COM

Any day now, eel­like par­a­sites with sucker mouths will wig­gle up San Luis Obispo Creek and build un­der­wa­ter nests in the creek bed to spawn.

Don’t worry, they won’t at­tack. They will, how­ever, be food for other wildlife and im­prove the health and wa­ter qual­ity of the creek, where the Re­gional Wa­ter Qual­ity Board said el­e­vated lev­els of fe­cal co­l­iform is a prob­lem. The an­cient, jaw-less fish, which look like some­thing out of a bad hor­ror movie, are called Pa­cific lam­preys.

This is the third year in a row that the lam­preys are in San Luis Obispo. That’s af­ter they sud­denly van­ished for nearly a decade, leav­ing sci­en­tists be­wil­dered. Now that they’ve re­turned, San Luis Obispo Creek is a hotspot for those study­ing the mys­te­ri­ous fish.

City bi­ol­o­gists are work­ing with Cal Poly, the Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice to un­der­stand how lam­preys re­turn and how that could be a model to re­turn lam­preys to streams up and down the West Coast. That’s im­por­tant be­cause the fish are ben­e­fi­cial to the ecol­ogy of streams and to Na­tive Amer­i­can groups who eat them.

WHAT ARE PA­CIFIC LAM­PREYS?

You may be fa­mil­iar with lam­preys, known by some as “vam­pires of the sea,” thanks to their star­ring role in the made-forTV movie “Blood Lake: At­tack of the Killer Lam­preys.” But th­ese blood-suck­ers don’t usu­ally suck on hu­mans.

They gen­er­ally don’t at­tack hu­mans un­less they are starved.

Pa­cific lam­preys can grow up to two feet long. As adults, they feed by at­tach­ing to larger fish with their sucker mouths, filled with three large teeth and rings of smaller teeth. In turn, the lam­preys are eaten by bald ea­gles, river ot­ters and bears. But when lam­preys are young, they are fil­ter feed­ers that clean stream wa­ter and look like gar­den-va­ri­ety worms.

Af­ter five to seven years, the lam­preys go through a dras­tic trans­for­ma­tion. They grow eyes and teeth, and turn sil­ver.

That’s when they travel from fresh wa­ter to the Pa­cific Ocean. Af­ter two or three years, the lam­preys re­turn to fresh wa­ter be­tween De­cem­ber and March to pre­pare to spawn.

Hun­dreds of lam­prey lar­vae are feed­ing in the bot­tom of the creek that runs past down­town Mis­sion Plaza right now.

“Many peo­ple don’t know they ex­ist be­cause they spend a lot of time un­der the sub­strate, buried. But they move at night,” said Damon Good­man, a bi­ol­o­gist who stud­ies lam­preys with U.S. Fish and Wildlife. “They’re play­ing this func­tion in our stream with­out most peo­ple notic­ing what’s go­ing on.”

THE DIS­AP­PEAR­ING THREE-TOOTH LAM­PREY

When the lam­preys went miss­ing from San Luis Obispo Creek in the early 2000s, “It was kind of a shock,” Good­man said. “De­spite that all other fish com­mu­ni­ties were healthy and happy, lam­preys were gone.”

He hud­dled with other sci­en­tists, in­clud­ing city bi­ol­o­gist Freddy Otte, and formed a work­ing group to try to fig­ure out what hap­pened. Was it cli­mate change and warm­ing wa­ters, or some­thing else?

Through his re­search, he learned that the big­gest threat to lam­preys are bar­ri­ers to pas­sage, such as dams, tide gates and cul­verts.

Un­like salmon, who re­turn to fresh­wa­ter to spawn by jump­ing over wa­ter­falls or other bar­ri­ers, lam­preys crawl. They use their mouths to suc­tion onto a sur­face, then wig­gle their bod­ies — sim­i­lar to do­ing “the worm” on the dance floor — thrust­ing their bod­ies up­ward.

Lam­preys can climb up wa­ter­falls, but they can’t ne­go­ti­ate a right an­gle.

As it turns out, a 2004 ad­just­ment to a weir at the mouth of San Luis Obispo Creek that was meant to im­prove steel­head pas­sage likely pre­vented lam­prey pas­sage.

Good­man and his team found a quick $300 fix in 2013: a piece of metal bent over the side of the weir to pro­vide lam­preys with a climb­ing sur­face. By 2016, “Lo and be­hold, (the lam­preys) re­turned,” Good­man said.

That sim­ple ramp, nicknamed the Lam­pRamp, was cheap and ef­fec­tive — and it could prove use­ful in the ef­fort to re­turn lam­prey to other streams. “With small tweaks, we can make a big change for lam­preys,” Good­man said.

While lam­preys once lived in streams from Baja to Alaska, the num­ber of streams they live in has de­clined since Euro­pean set­tle­ment across the West.

San Luis Obispo Creek is now the far­thest south they live, Good­man said.

Lam­preys are also known to travel in­land in the Sali­nas River and into trib­u­taries, in­clud­ing Paso Robles Creek and in the Nacimiento River on Camp Roberts.

When lam­preys re­turned to San Luis Obispo Creek, it was “the first time they’ve re­col­o­nized a stream sys­tem any­where,” Good­man said. “We’re hop­ing San Luis Obispo acts as a cat­a­lyst to re­col­o­nize drainages even far­ther south.”

“It’s kind of a big deal be­cause it sets our ex­pec­ta­tions in other spots, where lam­preys are trucked around bar­ri­ers,”

he said. “This sug­gests if you give them a way to re­col­o­nize, they’ll do it on their own.”

TRACK­ING LAM­PREY IN SAN LUIS OBISPO CREEK

Re­search of lam­preys is far be­hind that of more charis­matic fish such as salmon and steel­head, Good­man said. He’s work­ing to an­swer ba­sic ques­tions about this slith­ery species.

“We know so lit­tle about them,” Good­man said, not­ing that when he started his re­search, “we didn’t even know where they were in Cal­i­for­nia.”

Soon, re­searchers will know more. The city plans to build a box with a cam­era in clear tub­ing ad­ja­cent to the metal ramp, ac­cord­ing to Otte. As lam­preys move through us­ing their sucker mouths, the mo­tion will trig­ger a pic­ture, with a date and time stamp.

While lam­prey are an­cient fish, this is the first time the city is en­gaged in any kind of mon­i­tor­ing of them.

City bi­ol­o­gists, with the help of the Cal­i­for­nia Con­ser­va­tion Corps’ Wa­ter­shed Stew­ards Pro­gram, are mon­i­tor­ing adult lam­prey re­turns as well as where they build their nests, called redds. They’re do­ing sur­veys for redds, steel­head and lam­prey right now, Otte said.

“It’s ex­cit­ing to re­ally quan­tify what that eco­log­i­cal ben­e­fit is,” he said.

The city is also part­ner­ing with Cal Poly to study the eco­log­i­cal niche that lam­preys fill in the stream sys­tem, in­clud­ing whether they are ben­e­fi­cial in re­duc­ing pathogens in the creek.

“Just be­cause you look at the creek and you don’t see any fish, doesn’t mean it’s not a thriv­ing ecosys­tem,” Otte said. “The creek is an amaz­ing place.” Mon­i­caVaughan:805-781-7930,@Mon­i­caLVaughan

JOE JOHN­STON jjohn­[email protected]­bune­news.com

Damon Good­man, a fish bi­ol­o­gist with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice, stud­ies where Pa­cific Lam­preys live in­clud­ing San Luis Obispo, the south­ern most creek they in­habit.

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Three­yearsafterfed­er­al­bi­ol­o­gistsin­stalledthisLam­pRamp­n­earthe mouthofSanLuisObis­poCreekin2013,Paci­fi­clam­preysre­turnedto the­wa­ter­way.

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