They are, according to one expert, the “most wrongly disrespected fish” in the whole Connecticut River system. Another says he’s had run-ins with fishermen “beating them to death with golf clubs or anything else they can find.”
Of course, you can get a bad rep if you’re known as the 'vampire of the sea,' live by latching on to other creatures with a fang-rimmed mouth and sucking out their blood until they die.
It doesn’t help that “sea lampreys” are downright ugly — they’ve even got teeth in their tongues. “They resemble a snake,” says Boyd Kynard, a top lamprey expert, “and humans just don’t like things resembling snakes… People see them as creepy, slimy things.”
And in some parts of the U.S. these creatures are considered such a nasty invasive species that millions of dollars a year are spent trying to eradicate the evil bastards with poison.
In Lake Champlain and the Great Lakes, lampreys have been blamed for the collapse of trout and whitefish stocks, triggering long-running anti-lamprey campaigns.
But, hey, let’s show a little respect. The sea lamprey is a Connecticut native, and we’ve had a long history of nurturing evil bastards in this state. (Think Benedict Arnold or some of our more recent corrupt political bloodsuckers.)
“The Connecticut River once had the largest sea lamprey population on the East Coast,” says Jason Vokoun, an associate professor with the University of Connecticut’s Department of Natural Resources and the Environment.
Right now, tens of thousands of adult lampreys up to two-feet long are about ready to swim up from the Atlantic and Long Island Sound to spawn in streams like the Farmington and Salmon and Eight Mile Rivers and tributaries farther north, all the way into Vermont.
Kynard and other fishery experts consider the lampreys (they’re not eels by the way) the greatest migratory fish success story in the attempt to revive the Connecticut River system’s ecological balance.
Our lampreys will be too busy with sex to be sucking the life out of any of our local fish. And when the adult lampreys die (right after the sex), their bodies will become aquatic compost, enriching the waters with their decomposing flesh.
Kynard is a former federal fisheries expert who now has his own consulting business and teaches at the University of Massachusetts. He says dead and decomposing lampreys are especially critical to the river system environment because they bring “marine-derived nutrients” back from the sea.
All those yummy ocean nutrients are way better compost than dead fish that lived their whole lives in our rather barren fresh water rivers and brooks, according to Kynard. “It’s like going down to the most expensive compost pile you can find on the coast and then bringing it back and dumping it into our streams,” he explains.
Atlantic salmon long ago performed the same service, swimming up the Connecticut River to spawn, dying and enriching the whole ecosystem with their nutrient-rich bodies. But the long and expensive (as in tens-of-millions-of-dollars expensive) effort to restore Atlantic salmon to the Connecticut River hasn’t had a whole lot of success.
In case you’re wondering, shad also migrate back up the Connecticut to spawn but not all that many die afterward. The post-sex death rate for sea lampreys is 100 percent.
Lampreys do seem to be benefiting hugely from salmon and shad-related programs to build effective fish ladders and to remove the many dams that prevent migrating fish from reaching their traditional spawning grounds.
Steve Gephard is a supervising fisheries biologist with Connecticut’s environmental agency. He estimates the annual run of sea lampreys up our great tidal river “may reach 100,000,” with several thousand more migrating up smaller rivers like the Housatonic, Naugatuck and Quinnipiac.
Gephard is in charge of this state’s migrating fish program, and he says nest surveys have found sea lampreys spawning in “tributaries of tributaries… in little brooks you can step across.”
Kynard says the lampreys' sucker mouths allow them to clamp on to things like concrete fish ladders and rest, where other migratory fish might give up. The result is, he says, that whenever an impenetrable barrier is removed, the lamprey seem to immediately head as far upstream as possible.
And don’t worry, the lampreys' offspring won’t be playing any vampire games while they’re in Connecticut waters.
Juvenile lampreys drift downstream after hatching and settle into the silt, feeding strictly on microscopic creatures and serving as food for larger fish, until they’re ready to head for the sea. Vokoun says they can stay in this non-bloodsucking immature phase for as long as 10 years.
It’s only when they get to salt water that they start attaching themselves to larger fish. They then gnaw a hole in the skin, using those toothed tongues, and begin making withdrawals. Lamprey saliva keeps the wound from healing over. By some estimates, the survival rate for fish with a lamprey attached is only one in seven.