Fellow Story

Keith Parker: Researching bizarre prehistoric fish to preserve Yurok culture

Fellow(s): Keith Parker

Editor's note: The following story first appeared on The Sacramento Bee's website.

When Yurok citizen and biologist Keith Parker was a child, he fished for Pacific lamprey with his grandfather.

Late at night, the two crept down to the mouth of the Klamath River on California’s northern coast, their hand-carved wooden eel hooks in tow. Braving the lethally fast river, cold darkness and pouring rain, Parker speared lamprey out of the water as the fish swam near the edge of the shore.

For the Yurok tribe, fishing isn’t a recreational weekend activity to be paired with a cold beer. It’s a way of subsistence, a way of life.

“Yurok people are fish and river people,” Parker said. “The Klamath River is our grocery store. We eat out of the river.”

The closest grocery store is 25 miles away. However, the Yurok tribe, living on a reservation stretching for 44 miles along the river in Del Norte and Humboldt counties, has lived upon on a rich diet of 70 percent protein for thousands of years. Freshly caught salmon fillets and smoked or grilled Pacific lamprey make up most of their diet, along with nutritious acorn soup and root vegetables.

In the past decade, the Klamath River began to fail the Yurok tribe. The yearly supply of Pacific lamprey fell 90 percent from its original stock due to the damming of the Klamath and Columbia Rivers throughout the 20th century, via the Iron Gate Dam, the Copco Dams 1 and 2, and the John C. Boyle Dam in Oregon.

“Food is the foundational part of our culture,” Parker said. “For tribal cultures, these traditional foods feed more than our bodies. They feed our spirit. For us, these foods like Pacific lamprey represent our living link with the land.”

Parker’s groundbreaking biology research regarding a new subspecies of Pacific lamprey, recently published in the science journal Molecular Ecology, may be the key to saving his tribe’s way of life. Parker isolated two subspecies of the fish: a river-maturing type and ocean-maturing type. Parker analyzed 219 lamprey DNA samples he collected over an entire year, and located 15 genes that determine whether the fish will mature in the river or ocean.

Parker hopes that his research will open the door to further investigation of the lamprey, because the future of his tribe lies with this bizarre-looking, prehistoric fish.

Even before the first dinosaur hatched, Pacific lampreys swam in prehistoric rivers.

The slender, gray eel-like fish looks like it hails from a forgotten era. The lamprey boasts a neat row of seven breathing holes instead of gills, and instead of a mouth, a sucking disk blossoms open to reveal a ring of yellowing, oddly human-like teeth and a sharp tongue.

The Pacific lamprey is much less glamorous than its peer, the salmon, and does not have much commercial value.

“They’re not sold in the Safeway stores,” Parker said. “People don’t ask for eel fillet. They’re way understudied. But to me they have huge ecological and cultural importance.”

Pacific lamprey are remarkable in two ways.

Firstly, the Pacific lamprey is mouthwatering. It tastes just like unagi, or Japanese eel, and its silky texture reveals its high fat content. The lamprey packs two to three times the fat content of the average salmon. They start appearing in the Klamath River in November, when the salmon stop running for the season, providing Yurok citizens with heart-healthy, nutritious omega-three fish oils during the cold winter months.

Second, the redwood tree, a famous denizen of the Pacific Northwest, should thank the Pacific lamprey and salmon for its awe-inspiring height.

“Trees are made of fish,” Parker said. “Redwood trees would not exist if it wasn’t for the returning fish like salmon and lamprey.”

The lamprey’s migration from the ocean to inland rivers is crucial to the health of the trees. After lamprey spawn and breed in the rivers, they die, and their carcasses are dragged by animals from the river into the forest. There, nutrients from the lamprey’s bodies, such as phosphorus, are absorbed by trees.

The loss of lamprey in the Klamath River has had a shattering effect not only on the ecosystem, but on Yurok culture as well.

“Our people evolved over tens of thousands of years to eat that specific diet,” Parker said. “Now you take that diet away.”

As the lamprey and salmon supply depleted, the Yurok people began to depend on monthly government handouts of packaged foods, such as “fake” cheese, noodles and powdered milk.

Then came rampant diabetes, obesity, heart disease and mental health disorders. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, indigenous people are twice as likely to have diabetes than whites. In 2015, the Yurok tribe declared a state of emergency after seven consecutive suicides in an 18 month period, according to a story by the Center for Health Journalism. Parker believes in the link between an altered, unhealthy diet, and these health conditions.

Parker hopes that a deeper understanding of the Pacific lamprey can prepare his tribe for the next two years, when four dams that currently bar the Klamath and Columbia Rivers – the Iron Gate Dam, the Copco Dams 1 and 2, and the John C. Boyle Dam in Oregon will be dismantled due to environmental concerns. The project has been called the largest dam removal effort in history. According to Parker, the removal of these dams will open 408 additional spawning miles for salmon and lamprey.

“Our opportunity right now for recolonization of fish from these dams is huge,” Parker said.

Parker’s goal is to use genetic analysis as a real-time management tool to organize fishing after the dams have been removed. For now, Parker wishes to open up new avenues for lamprey research.

The scientific names for the two subspecies of lamprey are in Yurok. The river-maturing type is called “key’ween,” the Yurok word for Pacific lamprey, and the other, the ocean-maturing type, called “tewol,” the Yurok word for ocean.

“They’ve been keystone cultural species for thousands of years for us,” Parker said. “The fact that we still have these runs shows our tribe’s ability to maintain a sustainable fishery. It really illustrates depth of knowledge that we have.”