Matt Fox wades out into the rushing water of the Hood River, repeatedly jabbing at an underwater wire with a long plastic pipe, as the hot late summer sun beats down on him.
The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs fish biologist and several compatriots are working in the heat of the day to restore a data monitoring wire for one of the least glamorous fish in existence.
The wire enables the tribes, and various state agencies and universities to track the movements of the lamprey, an ancient eel-like fish,
“It’s about 450 million years old so it predates salmon by a few million years,” Fox said. “Salmon and steelhead get all the press and funding.”
“It’s not the most charismatic fish,” added Nick Grzych, another member of the Tribes lamprey team.
A percentage of the annual lamprey run is tagged each year at Bonneville Dam by Army Corps and University of Idaho researchers with a PIT (Passive Integrated Transponder) tag which transmits radio frequency signals. The wire is designed to capture the signals as the lamprey move from the Columbia up the Hood River.
“We don’t know where those fish are going; are they continute up stream or going into tributaries?” Fox said. “We know they are going into the Deschutes, 15 Mile Creek and here, and essentially what we hope to get with this site is when we start marking adults, we do recapture and this would be our recapture point.”
The cable has been across the mouth of the Hood River since June but Fox and his team are already out replacing it for a second time.
The previous wire was much thinner, and was cut or damaged by someone along the riverbank. With a thicker line strung on the bottom at a spot just below the Hood River County Museum of History, Fox and his team are hoping that will no longer be a problem.
“The site is used by fishermen and they’ve got some spinners set up on it … we changed the cable to one aught so they are not going to be able to cut the cable with a knife. They’ll need a bolt cutter,” Fox said.
Fox was not sure why the line had been vandalized so many times already, but theorized it could have something to do with people simply not understanding its purpose.
That would put the cable in the same company as the fish it monitors.
“It’s a poorly understood animal,” Fox said of the eel-like fish.
Before the Powerdale Dam was removed the lamprey were known to exist in the Hood River below the dam, and once the dam came out Warm Springs fisheries tested above the dam and found young lamprey up the East Fork of the river.
“They’ve re-colonized,” Fox said.
The lamprey live on the bottom of the river so to bring them to the surface to count them, a fishing backpack with electrical currents is used to draw the fish up and stun them.
“Once they surface the stun stops them,” said Andrew Wild Bill with the lamprey team. “They live in the sediment – there is a bunch of them underneath the I-84 bridge.”
The information which is collected from the cable in the Hood River is sent to the University of Idaho and other agencies.
According to Fox and his team, the lamprey serve as a valuable resource for the rivers ecosystem.
In addition to bringing valuable nutrients to rivers and streams when they finish their life cycle, they also serve as a buffer fish for migrating salmon.
“As the adults come up they help buffer the salmon migration from the sea lion and as the larvae leave the stream they buffer the smolt population from birds.” Wild Bill
Additionally Northern Pike Minnow, which can devastate a salmon population, also target lamprey as they move across the Columbia’s dams.
And cables like the one which is now laid across the Hood river and marked with numerous signs helping biologists know how the lamprey population is doing and how far it is spreading.
And the folks doing the monitoring have one simple message:
“Please don’t cut the wire, this is valuable data,” Fox said. “(The lamprey) is old, they are valuable for the system. If you have a presence of them it indicates a healthy stream…they are valuable.”