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Great Lakes Invaders: Controlling the Sea Lamprey

A close up look into the mouth of a sea lamprey (photo: Angelica A. Morrison)

By Angelica Morrison

The sharp scent of chemicals bites the air as Jason Krebill wades in a creek and pulls out two slippery, slimy, parasitic creatures.

He was holding dead adult sea lampreys one in each hand. They were about two feet long, with suction-cupped mouths, lined with nearly a dozen rows of sharp teeth.

Like a vampire, the sea lamprey latches onto its prey and sucks the blood and nutrients out of fish in all five of the Great Lakes. Krebill, a biological science technician with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is a part of a team whose job it is to control the invasive species.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is contracted by the Great Lakes Fishery Commission to apply lampricide to the creeks and tributaries throughout the Great Lakes Corridor.

In early May, the team was in Western New York applying the treatment to the Cattaraugus Creek near an underpass in the town of Gowanda.

“Well basically, if we left Cattaraugus Creek and its tributaries, like Clear Creek and some of the other ones further up untreated, then it would allow lamprey to come out of the stream every year and find fish out in Lake Erie to attach to and feed on,” Krebill said.

The applications of lampricide are applied every three to four years. The treatment is specifically created to target the lamprey larva with minimal effects on other aquatic wildlife.

“Some of the more primitive fish species might be adversely affected by it, but its primary target is to kill sea lamprey and it’s pretty effective at that,” he said. “We figure sometimes we get a 90 percent or better effective kill rate for larva.”

Even though the lamprey control program has been effective, there’s still a chance that anglers may encounter one while fishing on the Great Lakes. If that happens, avid fisherman and charter boat captain Frank Cambell of the Niagara Regional Charter Service Frank Campbell said there’s nothing to fear.

“They’re not monsters. They’re not going to come after you, when you’re swimming,” said Campbell, who said if you catch one you should kill it instead of throwing it back into the lake. “I’ve caught a lot of fish that had lamprey stuck to them and essentially what we do is we cut them in half and get rid of them.”

There are 180 nonnative species in the Great Lakes. And, the sea lamprey is one of the earliest and worst of the invaders. The fish is native to the Atlantic Ocean and made its way to the Great Lakes through canal systems like the Welland Canal.

The lamprey has a history of being a severely a destructive force in the Great Lakes. According to the Great Lakes Fishery Commission the sea lamprey can eat up to 40 pounds of fish during its 12 to 18 month feeding period.

Marc Gaden, legislative liaison for the commission, said before the lamprey control program, the creature would consume 110 million pounds of fish every year, compared to the current amount of consumption at 10 to 12 million pounds of fish.

“Ten or 12 million pounds is a lot of fish, but it’s certainly not the order or magnitude of the fish that we used to lose to lamprey before that lamprey control program began,” Gaden said. 

It’s not all bad news when it comes to lamprey. In some cultures around the world the troublemaker is a delicacy. In 2002 and 2012 frozen lamprey were sent from the Great Lakes over to the United Kingdom for the city of Gloucester to make a lamprey pie for the Queen. Gaden said the creature used to be abundant in that area, but because of habitat loss it was scarce.

“They use a recipe from the middle ages, so they keep that tradition alive,” he said. “And, that’s sort of our funny little connection between the Great Lakes Sea Lamprey Program and the city of Gloucester.”

The lamprey control program was key in bringing the Great Lakes commercial fishery from a state of devastation in the 1940s and 1950s, to a fishery that attracts millions from around the world. Gaden said the Great Lakes fishery is now valued at $7 billion between the United States and Canada.

“It’s hard to use the word fortunate and lamprey in the same sentence, but we are kind of fortunate that the one invader that’s the worst of the worst we’re actually able to control with a selective control method,” he said. “If we didn’t have the selective control method at our disposal we would not have the fishery that we know of today in the Great Lakes basin.”