Posts Tagged ‘eeling’

Photo: Dave Herasimtschuk, US Fish & Wildlife Service/Wikimedia.
In Washington State, the Yakama Nation Fisheries crew routinely teams up to catch lamprey at an “eeling” hole that’s fed tribal members for generations. Lamprey use the suction of their oral discs to climb rocks at the eeling hole.

I like to explore social media and recently added Mastodon to the places I visit. At Mastodon, you have to join a group (what they call an instance), and I chose the Climate Justice instance. Being with Climate Justice has exposed me to people I haven’t followed before on social media. You won’t be surprised to learn that a topic like climate justice has attracted quite a few indigenous people. They are from all over the world: Sámi from the Nordic countries, Aborigine people from Australia, among others.

B. “Toastie” Oaster is one, a citizen of the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma. From Toastie, I learned about a publication called High Country News and an article on the Pacific lamprey, an ugly fish with a long, important history.

“Lamprey have lived on Earth for 450 million years. To them, dinosaurs were a passing fad, and the North American continent is a fairly recent development. Lamprey swim out to sea as juveniles, looking for hosts like salmon to parasitize until they are mature enough to swim up some other river to spawn. Adult lamprey are calorie-dense and slow, protecting their hosts and cousins, the salmon, by acting as a predation buffer in another gesture of reciprocal care. 

“Though lamprey play a key role in Pacific watershed ecosystems, they remain understudied outside of tribal fisheries. They’re the target of misplaced disdain, in part because they’re easily confused with sea lamprey, an Atlantic species that caused ecological havoc in the Great Lakes after a 19th century shipping canal allowed them to invade. Pacific lamprey are a different species, in a different ecosystem; they belong here, just like the people they sustain.

“As far back as the memory archive reaches, people have fished for eels in this watershed. Lamprey climb wet rocks with their sucker mouths, so waterfalls are good places to catch them. Celilo Falls was a dangerous place for eeling, so people went to places like Willamette Falls, Celilo’s younger cousin. In its heyday, it was an international destination for summer eeling. Elders remember elders who remember trails that connected the falls to central Oregon. Camps lined both sides of the Willamette and the Clackamas River, which branches off below the falls. 

“Wewa [an elder and tribal councilman of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs] and other elders are clear that their ancestors were not nomads. Families returned to permanent homes, making seasonal trips to where food thrived. This non-European approach to agriculture ensures that both people and ecosystems flourish. In its healthy state, the Willamette Valley was a food-producing white oak savanna, bright blue in springtime with flowering carpets of delicious camas roots. That’s where it got its name: ‘Willamette’ is a French corruption of lámt, the Ichishkíin word for blue, Wewa said. ‘They ruined it.’

“For the millions of lamprey that returned from the ocean to spawn in the Willamette Valley, the first obstacle they faced was Willamette Falls. In the late 1800s, settler accounts described the 1,500-foot-long, four-story-high falls as ‘completely covered‘ in eels during the summer runs — three layers deep, in some places. Historical photos give an idea of how the rocks looked blanketed in eels, some latched onto each other’s backs, rendering the boulders as shaggy as mastodons. In the 1940s, European settlers commercially harvested as many as 500,000 lamprey a year, but tribal harvests until that point had kept the population in careful balance. …

“Since industrialization, lamprey numbers have dropped by 90%, largely because of dams. According to some Natives, public antipathy toward the species hasn’t helped. Willamette Falls is one of the last places where there are still enough lamprey to harvest. There, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation and the Nez Perce Tribe — all of whom retain treaty fishing rights at Willamette Falls — boat upriver between industrial structures to harvest lamprey at the falls. These four tribes comprise the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC), an organization that enforces treaty rights and promotes conservation of the basin’s aquatic life. Every year, CRITFC coordinates eeling trips with tribes.

“Eeling teams consist of at least two people: one to hold the net, the other to catch the eels. Plucking them off the rocks is easy enough with cotton work gloves, which provide the best traction against eels’ dolphin-smooth skin. …

“To work a waterfall, crews start at the bottom; eels will spook and stampede if they sense danger or smell blood in the current. Sometimes, eelers use this to their advantage, sticking a net or a trap at the downspout of a rockpool and scaring the eels into it from behind. When a dipnet is full, the crew transfer the catch eel by eel into burlap bags, then carry the pulsing, writhing sacks over the boulders to the boat. …

“While any tribal member can organize eeling trips, the fisheries department conducts its own trips to get eels for elders, those in need and ceremonial uses. The boat’s driver, a teddy-bear-faced man in his mid-50s with a bandanna tied over a loose knot of gray hair, lit a cigarette, apparently the only person unfazed by the cold or the early hour.

“ ‘All this is pretty tame to me,’ he laughed. He said he used to work ’30-hour days’ running a commercial salmon fishing operation at Lake Celilo, where Celilo Falls used to be. He reminisced about his glory days at Willamette Falls in the late ’80s and early ’90s, claiming, with a sly smile, that he caught so many eels, he’s probably the reason they’re in decline. Five thousand pounds in a day, he said. ‘I’ve been there, done that, 30 years ago, 40 years ago.’

“The boat driver is Evans Lewis Jr., a veteran fisherman now serving as the assistant manager of the Yakama Nation Fisheries’ sturgeon hatchery. … Lewis said he knows the best eeling holes from previous generations, where lamprey still gather by the thousands. He pointed out the best route along the boulders: Don’t hug the ridge, he said. Swing out in a wide arc, closer to the water line. He described techniques no one uses anymore: Drilling drainage holes in a metal trash can is easier, he said, than hauling gunny sacks of eels back across the rocks. ‘Nobody fishes like I do,’ Lewis told me and grinned.’ “

Toastie’s long, fascinating article is at High Country, here. You may read four High Country articles for free each month.

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