Mark Harrison / The Seattle Times / AP
Science
Mark Harrison / The Seattle Times / AP

Elder’s devotion to ugly fish lives on after his tragic death

Elmer Crow believed the eel-like lamprey plays an important role in ecosystem balance

SPALDING, Idaho — Like salmon, lampreys are born in fresh water and journey to the ocean for several years before they return to spawn. They once numbered in the millions up and down the Columbia and Snake river basins of Washington and Idaho, but unlike with wild salmon, few people seem to care that lampreys are now nearly gone. But Elmer Crow Jr. did.

Crow, who died tragically a year ago, would sometimes see lone lampreys undulate past while he was out fishing. He said he always wondered if he was seeing the last one. A Nez Perce tribal elder and fisheries worker, he worked tirelessly to save the ancient fish from extinction. He encouraged an experimental technique called translocation — gathering lampreys from the lower Columbia River, where they are still relatively plentiful, and releasing them in Idaho mountain streams in hopes they would spawn there.

When Crow and others drove to John Day Dam on the lower Columbia to collect the eel-like adult lampreys and haul them back to the Nez Perce hatchery in late 2006, nobody really knew if translocation would work. The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation have been running a lamprey translocation program since the early 2000s, but only last year have they started to see small but encouraging returns of adult lampreys.

This summer, when fisheries biologists sorted through the findings in a screw trap anchored in a central Idaho mountain stream, they discovered Crow was right.

The trap, which collects outmigrating aquatic life, held 119 juvenile Pacific lampreys, which are called ammocetes in their larval stage. Genetic testing showed that 118 of the blind wriggling ammocetes were offspring of adult lampreys released in early 2007 by Crow and a Nez Perce fisheries team in their translocation program.

Elmer Crow
The late Elmer Crow Jr., a Nez Perce elder and technical supervisor for the Nez Perce Department of Fisheries Resources Management, holding an adult Pacific lamprey.
Michael Durham

“Elmer was definitely a primary thrust for the whole program,” said Dave Statler, director of the resident fish programs for the Nez Perce tribal fisheries. “He was very aware and had the cultural knowledge of what lamprey once were in the Snake basin and what they provided in the basin.”

The Nez Perce are years away from seeing any returning lampreys, which have a 10 to 12 year lifespan.

“We were starting from nothing,” said Statler, who notes translocated lampreys have successfully spawned. A thornier issue is how to keep migrating lampreys from being killed at hydroelectric dams. “We need fixes at the main-stem Columbia and Snake river dams to allow those fish to be restored.”

To reach the Nez Perce, adult lampreys must travel hundreds of miles of the Columbia and Snake rivers, a route blocked by eight deadly dams. Though daytime counts in the 1940s showed as many as 400,000 lampreys at the first dam, Bonneville, the Fish Passage Center's current daytime counts recorded 29,704 lampreys at Bonneville by Aug. 17 this year. At the eighth dam, Lower Granite, the count was only 40.

Lampreys migrate back to fresh water from May to September, and the numbers plunge dramatically at every dam. Thanks to pressure from tribes and advocates like Crow, experimental lamprey passage ladders are being built at some dams.

Detailed knowledge about Pacific lampreys has been lost. It’s unknown how long they stay in the streams after they hatched or in the main-stem rivers before heading out to sea as juveniles.

In recent decades they’ve been seen as a trash fish, good only as bait for sturgeon fishing.

Then there is the matter of their appearance.

“They’re not the prettiest fish,” said Jarrod Crow, one of Elmer Crow’s four children. In fact, with writhing, snakelike bodies and tooth-studded, suction-cup mouths, the parasitic adult lamprey can appear alien and nightmarish.

Despite steep declines in lampreys since federal dams have been constructed, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2004 declined to list the lamprey as an endangered species.

That year, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game had declared Newsome Creek among the waterways “devoid of lamprey” in a report that listed the fish as critically imperiled in the state.

Statler called the state’s survey “a red flag that we are going to lose the species from the Snake basin if we don’t do something.”

How do we let something that’s 450 [million], 500 million years old go extinct? Shame on us – the whole bunch of us – for not paying attention to what was going on.

Elmer Crow

Nez Perce tribal elder

Acting on Elmer Crow’s urgings but without any directed federal funding from an Endangered Species Act listing, the tribe began driving a pickup truck to Columbia River dams with a 400-gallon tank in the bed to hold lampreys.

After surviving five heart attacks, Crow believed “he was in bonus time,” two of his sons said. He became an energetic fighter to stave off extinction for the lamprey. He spoke of lampreys in terms of ecosystem balance — that they had a role in the basin and, even if no one was sure what it was, that didn’t make it any less important.

“Elmer always said the reason the salmon are not coming back is because the eels weren’t here anymore,” Lynda Crow said of her husband’s work. The ammocetes are filter feeders and help with the health of streams, she said. They are also a food source for young salmon and, being fattier and oilier, likely were a first choice for predators, taking some pressure off salmon smolts. Like salmon, lampreys charge streams with nutrients when they spawn and die.

“The Nez Perce had zero budget, and were running on Elmer’s passion,” said filmmaker Jeremy Monroe, who featured Crow in his 2013 documentary “The Lost Fish.”

Noting the ancient lineage of lampreys in the Pacific Northwest, Crow delivered a powerful indictment in the film: “How do we let something that’s 450 [million], 500 million years old go extinct? Shame on us — the whole bunch of us — for not paying attention to what was going on.”

Even after the feds refused to list the lamprey as endangered, Crow and others kept battling with entities such as the Bonneville Power Administration and the Corps of Engineers to consider lampreys in various projects.

“He would go to these big meetings and say, ‘No eels, no deals,’” Lynda Crow said. “He was known as Eelmer, which was appropriate.”

Pacific lamprey
Pacific lampreys (Entosphenus tridentatus) have writhing, snakelike bodies and tooth-studded, suction-cup mouths.
Tom Mchugh / Getty Images

Lampreys are not believed to have the sort of homing instinct that allows salmon to find the very stream where they were born. But research shows lampreys respond to pheromone cues — sniffing out chemicals released by their gall bladders — to choose a suitable stream for spawning.

So if there are no lampreys in a stream, no lampreys will choose that stream. Translocation, it turns out, is critical for restoring lampreys, even if the direct offspring of translocated fish don’t return to those waters.

“It’s very unselfish restoration” that the tribes have undertaken, Monroe said. “It’s really a big-picture view of how we save fish. It’s unlikely that lamprey translocated and spawned in Mission Creek by the Umatilla or Newsome Creek by the Nez Perce will make it back there as adults. Everybody is doing it in an unselfish way to try and keep these fish around.”

“That wisdom — that all things work together — was carried by elders like Elmer,” Monroe said.

On a recent Saturday at the Nez Perce Historical Park in Spalding, Idaho, Lynda Crow prepared food for the first anniversary memorial of Elmer Crow’s death.

A year earlier, Lynda and Elmer Crow, with two grandsons, intended to go sturgeon fishing in the Snake River at Buffalo Eddy, a favorite spot of Elmer’s and an ancient gathering site marked by hundreds of petroglyphs, some dating back 4,500 years.

“It was such a hot day, the kids jumped right in,” Lynda said. The wake from a passing jet boat, of the sort that takes tourists upriver to Hells Canyon, began sloshing against the shore, pulling the grandsons away from the shallows. Elmer and Lynda grabbed the older of the two, who was closer to shore. The waves pulled the younger grandson deeper into the river.

“Elmer jumped in to get him. The wake was pulling them out farther and farther. They were so far out,” Lynda said.

She flagged down a family in a passing boat, who spotted the boy apparently bobbing in the river. They plucked him out and raced him to shore.

“Where’s Elmer?” Lynda asked. “Where is your grandfather?”

“Papa was holding me on his shoulders,” the grandson said. The selfless act was Elmer Crow’s last.

Horrified, the boaters gunned back out into the deeper water, only to find Crow’s body.

On the anniversary of his death, Crow’s family placed a headstone on his grave. The hunk of basalt has a sinuous lamprey carved deep across its arched top.

“Lamprey were such a big part of him, it’s literally etched on his headstone,” his son Jeremy FiveCrows said.

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter