Trent Sutton, a professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, grabs a net and walks toward three large, round tanks of water covered in insulation. He dips the net and carefully moves it around, saying, “They are really hard to catch.” Sutton works at the College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, where he studies and teaches fisheries conservation, ecology and management.
A minute later, Sutton holds up a wriggling creature that looks like a dark gray eel. He tries to hold its shiny body, but it slips out of his grip, plopping back into the water. The next one he nets has a hot pink tag protruding from it. It holds still just long enough to reveal a line of seven small holes gracing the side of its head. Then it flips over, showing its light-colored belly and a sucker-like mouth full of tiny, sharp teeth.
These curious creatures are Arctic lampreys, the northernmost species of lamprey in the world. Despite their name, they are mostly found in Russia, Japan and subarctic Alaska, most commonly in the Bering Sea and the Yukon River.
“Lamprey are like the underdogs,” said Sabrina Garcia at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the agency that manages a little-known lamprey fishery on the lower Yukon River. “Everyone knows about salmon, but lamprey are pretty cool.”
Lampreys did make a brief splash in mainstream media in 2015, when a bird dropped a live lamprey in the Value Village parking lot in Fairbanks. The creature was noticed, to say the least. The thrift store is one of the most popular shopping destinations in Alaska’s second-largest city, and most people there likely had never seen a lamprey before. The fish was one of at least four that landed in Fairbanks that summer, making national headlines: CBS read, “Terrifying ‘vampire-fish’ falling from the sky in Alaska,” and Grist said, “It’s raining lampreys — time to leave this terrifying planet.” The lampreys were likely dropped by gulls, who — like Sutton — also had a hard time holding onto the wiggly creatures.
Despite their usual obscurity, people eat and fish for lampreys commercially. That’s spurred research into the little-understood species. In 2016 the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner and UAF CFOS reported on progress researchers were making in understanding lamprey biology, genetics and feeding habits. Since then, Sutton and his colleagues have published papers on larval lamprey and Arctic lamprey distribution in Interior Alaska’s rivers.
Now, with climate change affecting fishing conditions, scientists and fishermen have turned their attention to better understanding when lampreys migrate up the Yukon River, how fast they swim and where they go. The lamprey at Value Village swam more than 900 miles from the Bering Sea to get to a river near Fairbanks, likely the Chena River.
Because people fish for lampreys, ADF&G needs a better idea of their population and run dynamics. “The biggest thing is that we have no idea how big these Arctic lamprey runs are,” said Garcia. “There is a bit of risk in harvesting a species for which we have very little biological information.
Most Alaskans call Arctic lampreys “eels,” though they are actually not at all related to eels. Lampreys are parasites, and it is not uncommon to find a salmon or pike with circular bite marks made by lampreys feeding off of them. Once, a local fisherman even found an overzealous lamprey attached to the side of an aluminum skiff.
Like salmon, Arctic lampreys are born in tributaries, where they spend a few years burrowed in the mud. They migrate to the ocean for a few years to grow, then swim back up the Yukon River to spawn. Unlike most salmon, however, Arctic lampreys return in late fall or early winter and make most of their migration under a frozen river.
“They are basically bags of fat when they come in (from the ocean),” said Sutton. Lampreys survive off these lipids all winter as they swim upriver under the ice. They make it up to the tributaries by the time the ice goes out in May, then spawn and die.
This fat is what makes lamprey so delicious.
“Lamprey are really good eating,” said Donald Kelly from Pilot Station, a community about 120 miles from where the Yukon River drains into the Bering Sea.
These “eels” are considered a tasty treat by many people along the river who harvest them to supplement other subsistence staples such as salmon, whitefish, moose and caribou.
“Some people fry them up. Some people jar them with spices. Some people bake them in the oven until they are crispy,” Kelly said. In fact, they have so much oil that it has to be drained when they are baked or smoked. Lamprey can also be boiled like other fish (“not too long”) and they make an excellent sandwich spread. Kelly believes that lamprey oil helps keep people healthy.
Even Queen Elizabeth II of England has been known to enjoy Great Lakes sea lamprey pie.
But to eat lampreys, one first has to find them. Most of the migration happens in just a few weeks, and that’s the only chance to catch them for the year. Fishing for them is a chilly endeavor, at least until recent years with warmer winters.
Kelly said that toward the end of October, people go out onto the river at night to look for them with flashlights. They are easiest to see when the ice is clear and smooth. If lampreys are there, they can be seen swimming right under the surface.
“They come in spurts, like salmon,” he said. “You just have to keep checking.”
The lampreys are usually found near the shore. People cut rectangular holes in the ice where they think the run will be most concentrated. Some people snag them with a homemade “eel stick”—a ten-foot pole with nails sticking out of it. Others scoop the lampreys out of the water with fine-mesh dip nets. Once caught, the lampreys are piled onto the ice until they are taken home and cooked or put into the freezer.
“People try to get as much as they can, because the run is so uncertain. You could be getting a whole bunch, and then the next day they are gone,” said Kelly.
Historically, people also harvested lampreys for their household dog teams. Even though snowmachines have mostly replaced sled dogs for transportation, there are still dog mushers who value Arctic lamprey as a high-energy dog food. In 2017, the Discovery Channel series Yukon Men dedicated an episode to “The Art of the Eel” and showed residents of Tanana chainsawing holes in the ice to try to intercept the run with fish traps.
The lampreys did not cooperate, however, and decided not to show up for their reality TV debut.
Commercial fishing and the lamprey telephone line
There are enough lampreys in the Yukon River to sustain a small commercial fishery between Emmonak and Grayling, an area spanning about 336 river miles. Starting in 2003, the state of Alaska issued a commissioner’s permit for commercial harvest of lamprey. Such permits allow harvests of species that don’t have established management plans.
Jack Schultheis runs Kwikpak Fisheries (also known as Kwik’Pak), the sole commercial buyer of Arctic lamprey. The Yukon River fishery is the only commercial lamprey fishery in the United States, so that also makes Schultheis the sole lamprey buyer in the country.
ADF&G wants to provide commercial opportunity while making sure that lamprey harvest remains sustainable, so that people can continue to harvest them in the future. The annual quota for Arctic lamprey is about 44,000 pounds, which has remained the same since the fishery began.
Schultheis said that if the quota is met, the catch is divided fairly equally between three very different markets: fishing bait, Japanese consumers and university labs for neurology research.
Commercial fishermen catch lampreys predominantly with dip nets. The best time seems to be later in the afternoon or right as it gets dark. Fishermen line up buckets around their fishing hole and fill them as they dip lampreys out. Some people empty their nets directly onto a tarp, where the fish freeze in pretzel-like shapes. The lampreys are transported to weigh stations by snowmachines and then flown to Anchorage.
It’s an expensive fishery to operate, but it’s worth the effort. Lampreys are valuable; the wholesale price for them is $4.50 a pound, which is almost twice as much as chum salmon from the region. Lamprey commercial fishermen are paid around $1.50 per pound, and over a dollar per pound goes to freight costs.
“There is a certain amount of skill and a lot of luck to lamprey fishing. It varies tremendously,” Schultheis said. Catches range from zero to thousands of pounds, depending on the year. “Some years I will have fishermen make $10,000,” said Schultheis. “It just depends on the fisherman — if they hit them right and if they get their hole in the right location.”
Perhaps because the unpredictable nature of lamprey fishing makes any bad luck that much worse, many commercial fishermen still follow traditional beliefs surrounding fishing. One such belief is that if women are on the ice, the lampreys won’t be found.
Whatever the factors, on average lamprey fishermen make about $1,500 a season. That’s an important source of income in an area of Alaska hundreds of miles from the road system. Few economic opportunities exist in the small communities along the river, especially after the commercial salmon season has ended. Lamprey fishing offers a bump in income right before the holidays.
Mick Leach, who has worked in the area as a fisheries technician for ADF&G for many years, reiterated the importance of lamprey fishing success, both for subsistence activities and commercially. “The two fisheries are linked together to help fund the subsistence cycle,” he explained. In Bush Alaska, cash income provides money for gas that allows people to get out during the season to gather other food.
A test fishery was established at the mouth of the river in 2013 by ADF&G and the Yukon Delta Fisheries Development Association, the local Community Development Quota program. Lamprey catches are now recorded at six index sites, so that scientists and fishermen have a better idea of when lampreys enter the river, their population dynamics and run timing.
Lorraine Murphy and Robert Alstrom have been catching lampreys for the test fishery since 2013. They use fyke nets — cylindrical nets facing downstream that are held in place by an anchor and buoys. The test fishery occurs early, before the river is frozen, because ADF&G wants to figure out how soon the first lampreys arrive to begin their migration.
Leach works closely with Murphy and Alstrom and describes himself as “dispenser and traffic director of lamprey information.” He is constantly on his cell phone with fishermen calling to report signs of lampreys arriving in their area or to ask what test fish catches are.
Commercial and subsistence lamprey fishing have traditionally been collaborative, Leach said. “The villages have always connected with each other through the lamprey communication hotline.” In the early days this was VHF radio. Then telephones and now Facebook — which is nearly instantaneous.
“They pretty much established traditional run timing. Word spreads pretty quickly,” Leach said. “They know how much time it takes to get to the next village, and so on, all the way up, like a connective chain.
Running with climate change
As residents of the subarctic, lampreys have been affected by climate change. Leach has observed that some traditional fishing spots and run timing knowledge aren’t quite aligning with environmental conditions anymore, which makes finding and catching lampreys even more difficult.
Shultheis said, “I don’t think we have had a decent harvest for three seasons now — or any harvest really. So you build up these markets, and then you don’t have a product, so you lose those markets.”
“One thing that has started to happen as the climate has started to warm is that everything has started to change on the lower Yukon,” said Leach. Warm autumns translate into very late freeze-ups. “The problem is that since we have started doing the test fishery, Mountain Village couldn’t fish at their traditional lamprey holes because the river is open. And if it wasn’t open, it was clogged with slush, and they couldn’t even fish from the shore. So, the first initial run timing clue was missed.”
If the first run timing indicator is missed, the next village up the river tries to find the lampreys and relay the information to everyone else. However, it is much more difficult the farther the lampreys get up the river.
The test fishery has also had a difficult time ascertaining population densities. Leach explained that some years saw really high catches, and some years saw very low, even though the crew fished the exact same way and at the exact same time.
It’s unclear whether the lampreys are changing their run timing due to climate change or if no one knew that lampreys always had other swimming habits, because they occurred outside of the traditional time to fish for them.
To try to get a better idea of what was going on, ADF&G operated a three-year tagging project out of the lamprey test fishery starting in 2016. Murphy and Alstrom caught, tagged and released 9,000 lampreys with the hopes that they would be recaptured upriver. The idea was that by marking the lampreys, the T-bar style tags, called “floy tags,” could give data on their swim speed and location.
However, the fish seemed to have outsmarted the biologists. Only nine of the 9,000 tagged fish were ever found.
Trent Sutton at UAF believes the lampreys possibly pushed the tags out of their boneless bodies in a process called “shedding,” because there wasn’t anything solid to anchor the tag to, such as a dorsal fin. Others suggest the lampreys may have been swimming in a different part of the river, or that the tags impeded their swimming ability. No one knows for sure, because Arctic lampreys had never been tagged before.
Leach said this failed tagging attempt showed that, “It was desperately needed to find a better way to ascertain when lampreys travel.”
Commercial fishermen would also benefit from the research. “We need to know where they are at,” Shultheis said. “A better way to track them would help us considerably.
The radio tag swim team
Garcia also agreed that it was time to up the tagging game. “We sometimes fail to study species, and then when something goes wrong, we have to react quickly to study them. What we should be doing is getting a handle on these guys before things go awry.”
Garcia and Sutton have been working on Arctic lamprey tagging with Katie Shink, who began studying the lamprey as a graduate student with Sutton at CFOS and now works on behalf of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Last fall, Shink worked with Eastern Interior Regional Advisory Council members from lower Yukon River communities on a proposal to test whether a more sophisticated tagging method — radio telemetry — can be used without harming the lamprey.
The Office of Subsistence Management awarded funding to the project. Last fall, the two test fishers from YDFDA caught 20 Arctic lampreys and successfully shipped the live animals to Fairbanks.
“These are the pilot fish,” explained Sutton as he carefully held another lamprey in the palm of his hand. Arctic lampreys are small — only one inch in diameter — and until now, radio tags have only been tried with much larger lamprey species outside of Alaska.
Shink is the designated lamprey surgeon. This won’t be the first time she has worked with lamprey innards. A few years ago she discovered the predatory tendencies of marine-phase Arctic lampreys by taking a close look at their gut contents.
This spring she successfully anesthetized a select group of the lampreys at UAF and placed radio tags in them. The goal is to find a tag large enough to have sufficient battery life and detection range, yet small enough that it does not harm the fish.
“Obviously with these radio tags we want to make sure it doesn’t affect their survival or their swimming performance,” Shink said.
The researchers are observing how the lampreys in the tanks fare with their new tags. The fish are expected to die sometime in June or July, around the time that they would normally spawn and die in the wild.
Next fall, a new batch of lampreys will be sent to UAF and Shink will again perform radio tag surgeries. If the fish do well, then phase two of the study will commence: swim trials!
To mimic the Yukon River’s current, Sutton and Shink have constructed a contraption in which individual lampreys will be submerged and swim against a flow that will be incrementally increased. “We will record the time and velocity that they can sustain swimming, and that’s how we will evaluate if one or more tag types affect swimming performance,” Shink said.
Based on a previous study with another lamprey species, she anticipates that some fish will be able to swim against the current for a half day before getting tired.
After these observations, the researchers will be able to recommend a specific size of radio tag to track migration timing, movement and distribution. Then they will be able to seek funding to surgically implant radio telemetry tags in Arctic lampreys on the lower Yukon River and track their migration upriver.
So far, this batch of lampreys is faring quite well after their surgeries.
Not surprising for a species of fish that can fall from the sky onto asphalt and survive, and starve themselves for more than six months while swimming up the longest river in Alaska.
We humans just have to figure out where they go.
Alice Bailey is a public information officer and R/V Sikuliaq Science Liaison at the College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.