Sea lamprey aren't invasive, they're native
Written by The Burlington Free Press   
Tuesday, 29 November 2005 13:20

One of Vermont's least favorite "invasive" species, the lamprey, turns out to have been living in Lake Champlain for thousands of years before Samuel de Champlain explored it in 1609, scientists say.

Researchers from Michigan State University have determined that the Lake Champlain lamprey, an eel-like creature that attaches itself to fish and sucks their blood -- often fatally, have carried a distinct genetic package long enough to be declared native.

"The evidence is convincing," said Brad Young, a fisheries biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service based in Essex Junction. "They have invasive-like characteristics, but they are native."

Native populations of the little beasts also have been found in Lake Ontario and Lake Cayuga in central New York state.

Vermont fishing enthusiasts were not celebrating the discovery.

"Even if they are native, they are ruining what we are trying to do to get the lake fishing back to what it should be," said Ed Braman of Colchester, who fishes the lake for salmon, lake trout and walleye.

While some in Vermont think natives are superior to newcomers, Young said the lamprey's new status won't end efforts to reduce their population by using a chemical lampricide in streams feeding the lake.

"Whether it is a native or an invasive species does not affect our position," Young said. "We need to suppress the lamprey population to support re-establishment of the fishery for salmon and lake trout.

The lake's lamprey population has boomed in the last three decades, and they have been blamed for declining numbers of salmon and lake trout. Now scientists are trying to figure out how, if the lamprey aren't invasive, they've shared the lake with what were burgeoning populations of salmon and trout for perhaps 11,500 years.

The new theory is that European settlers and their descendants upset a delicate balance first by polluting rivers feeding the lake where salmon had spawned, and by heavy commercial fishing in the lake for trout. Later, a more ecologically conscious generation worked to clean up the rivers and restocked the lake with thousands of young salmon and trout -- enough of a feast to make the lamprey population explode.

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