Meeting Monsters: Hands-on lessons help fight invasive species in the Great Lakes


BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – Thousands of people headed to Buffalo’s waterfront this weekend to get a good look at the tall ships, and while they were there, many got a good look at some unwelcome visitors to the Great Lakes.

The Great Lakes Fishery Commission set up shop at Canalside to introduce Western New Yorkers to sea lampreys, an invasive species that’s often known as the Vampire Fish.

Lampreys use their rows of teeth to latch onto the side of a host fish with ten times the suction power of a vacuum. Then, the jawless lampreys use their tongues to bore a hole in the fish’s side to drink its blood.

Each lamprey can kill around 40 pounds of fish each year.

“So if their numbers are around a hundred thousand, which they are in the Great Lakes, then that’s 4 million pounds of fish that are lost in a year due to the lamprey, so they’re extremely destructive to the Great Lakes ecosystems because they kill fish,” explained Nathan Allen, an intern with the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, who spent the weekend educating the public about lampreys at the Tall Ships Festival.

The Great Lakes Fishery Commission, which works with both the US and Canadian governments to protect the Great Lakes from sea lampreys, says the fishery generates up to $7 billion for the region annually, offering recreational angling opportunities for five million people and providing 75,000 jobs.

That’s why it’s critical to keep sea lamprey populations down, and it’s critical to educate the public about them.

“A lot of people really don’t know what lampreys are or are not sure what an invasive species is, and just understanding that and being able to go out to your politicians and explain to them the importance of controlling invasive species is a good stepping stone for any conservation act,” Allen said.

To learn about lampreys this weekend meant seeing them up close in the tank set up at Canalside.

Some very brave visitors even held lampreys or allowed the lampreys to attach to their hands.

Lampreys will sometimes latch onto humans, but will not try to drink human blood. Lampreys only want cold blood, like that of their fish hosts.

Most humans will never interact with lampreys unless they pull one up on the side of a fish they catch. Adult lampreys live in the cold, deep areas of the Great Lakes.

But, they swim into local streams like the Cattaraugus Creek to spawn.

Each spring, crews go out to assess sea lamprey larvae populations here and chemically treat the water to eliminate the larvae before they can grow up into the destructive adults that live in the Great Lakes.

The control program has been a huge success over the years and lamprey numbers are down, so fish like salmon and trout are doing really well.

“The issue is if they take the hands off the wheel, just for one year, the populations start to bounce back, and so we’re out here letting the public know that what we’re doing is very important,” said Jennifer Nalbone, an adviser to the Great Lakes Fishery Commission.

The more members of the public who learn about sea lampreys, the better the results in the ongoing battle on the Great Lakes.

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