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What about the ugly animals?

I'm going to go out on a limb and predict that you won't see a "Save the lampreys" bumper sticker any time soon.

By Blogger for The Christian Science Monitor / November 13, 2008

A lamprey. Species of these creatures bore into the flesh of fish and feed on their blood.

PHOTOPQR / SUD OUEST / Laurent THEILLET / NEWSCOM / FILE

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I'm going to go out on a limb and predict that you won't see a "Save the lampreys" bumper sticker any time soon.

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Not only are they so unattractive as to make scorpions look like hamsters by comparison, but the behavior of these eel-like creatures is, by human standards, profoundly uncivil. Using their suction-cup mouths and sharp teeth, lampreys attach themselves to unsuspecting fish, pierce their flesh with their pointy tongues, and hang there for about 18 months, living off the fish's blood. When they finally detach, they leave a distinctive, circular wound on the fish.

Note to environmental groups: don't use lampreys in your fundraising literature.

This past weekend, the Boston Globe ran a fascinating piece by David Filipov on a sea lamprey population in Lake Champlain. Fishermen have observed that a growing number of the lake's salmon and trout are undernourished, pocked with sores, or, in some cases, still have the parasites dangling from them.

To control the lampreys, state wildlife officials in New York and Vermont have been dumping TFM, a chemical that kills lamprey larvae but, they say, leaves other wildlife unharmed.

But these actions have drawn criticism from conservationists, particularly on the Vermont side of the lake, who are concerned that the lampricide could be upsetting the lake's ecological balance. It's unclear whether Champlain's lampreys are an invasive species or whether they are native to the lake. Filipov writes:

Vermont's sensitivity about the lake's habitat reflects a broader reconsideration of the role humans have played in shaping it. If the sea lamprey is invasive, it probably made its way into the lake through man-made canals, the way it arrived in the Great Lakes. But recent research suggests that the Lake Champlain sea lamprey is genetically distinct from the ocean species, and may have entered the lake as the glaciers receded 10,000 years ago.
If this is true, the eradication by humans of native strains of fish, which may have been better adapted to survive alongside sea lampreys, helped cause the current imbalance. Deforestation and cultivation of the land filled the lake's tributaries with sediment that made them better suited for lamprey larvae to survive. Since fisheries began restocking the lake with nonnative strains of trout and salmon in the 1970s, the sea lamprey population, judging from the number of wounds on fish, has skyrocketed.
"We're feeding the lampreys by restocking their favorite food," said Ellen Marsden, a biology professor at the University of Vermont who has researched sea lampreys. "And we're competing for the same fish."

So by altering the lake bed, eradicating native fish, and replacing them with food fish, we have already drastically transformed the lake's ecosystem. So now what? Do we try to restore Champlain to the way it was before humans started interfering with it? Or do we push ahead and keep trying to make the lake more attractive to fishermen, thereby injecting money into the local economy?

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