Get up close to a “vampire fish” at Tall Ships event this weekend

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Tall ships with billowing sails are attracting thousands to Buffalo’s waterfront this weekend, but there’s another display related to the Great Lakes to see. 

Through Sunday, the Great Lakes Fishery Commission is running an informational booth about parasitic sea lampreys- including a tank of the creatures for guests to get an up-close look. 

Sea lampreys are jawless fish that are invasive to the Great Lakes. They have a vampire-like mouth with a suction cup, rows of sharp teeth, and a tongue with a sharp tooth designed to burrow into fish to drink their blood. 

Each sea lamprey in the Great Lakes can destroy up to 40 lbs. of fish in one year. 

Sea lampreys were one of the first invasive species to the Great Lakes, Ted Lawrence, communications and policy specialist for the Great Lakes Fishery Commission said. 

They were brought to the Great Lakes from their native habitat in the Atlantic Ocean by boats traveling through shipping canals, including the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Welland Canal. 

“By the 1950s, they had destroyed almost the entire fishery in the Great Lakes,” Lawrence said. 

The Great Lakes Fishery Commission was established in 1954 to control the sea lamprey population and manage fisheries on the Great Lakes. 

The commission utilizes lampreys’ unique life cycles to help keep their numbers under control. 

Sea lamprey larvae live in streams for about four to seven years as worm-like filter feeders before they metamorphose into two-foot long parasites. A chemical compound known as lampricide was created to specifically target lampreys. It’s used to treat streams and kills up to 90 or 95 percent of larval lampreys, keeping their populations low and the fish populations healthy, Lawrence said. 

The commission also prevents lampreys from swimming up stream to spawn by using barriers and traps. 

“A single female lamprey spawns about 100,000 eggs, about 7,000 of those being viable, so they’re very prolific,” Lawrence said. 

Ironically, lampreys are endangered in their native habitat due to overfishing. They’re considered a delicacy in many European nations. 

However, you shouldn’t eat lampreys from the Great Lakes, Lawrence said.

“They’re the top predator, and they’ve bioaccumulated all of the toxins in the Great Lakes,” Lawrence said. “I wouldn’t eat them.” 

While their long, snakelike body resembles an eel, lampreys are not eels, Lawrence said.

“An eel has a jaw and is native to the Great Lakes- it’s one of the species we’re trying to protect,” Lawrence said. 

Lampreys have a disc-type mouth instead of a jaw. The outer ring of the mouth has about 60 lbs. of suction per square inch-that’s about ten times stronger than a vacuum cleaner, Lawrence said. The suction pulls the lamprey’s teeth into a fish so that the fish can’t shake it. 

“It’s a prehistoric fish that hasn’t evolved in over 450 million years,” Lawrence said. “They’ve survived four mass extinctions.” 

As scary as lampreys are to the fish population of the Great Lakes, Lawrence says you don’t have to worry about encountering one on your next swim. 

“They’re usually in the cold, deep water where the lake trout and the salmon are,” Lawrence said. “If you haven’t seen a sea lamprey in the wild, you probably never will.” 

The Great Lakes Fishery Commission, which is made up of representatives from both the U.S. and Canada, works with other agencies in both countries to keep out other invasive species, such as Asian carp. 

“In the Great Lakes, we have around 180 aquatic invasive species- a lot of those came in through the canals and the bilge in the ships,” Lawrence said. 

The GLFC has been working on ballast legislation to have ships coming into the lakes treat their bilge water so they they don’t introduce any new species. 

“Those laws were strengthened in 2006 and since then, we’ve seen very few invasive species coming through that vector,” Lawrence said. 

Through Sunday, you can stop by the GLFC’s booth at Canalside for more information, and to get a look at a tank of lampreys. 

If you’re brave enough, you can even touch one. 

“People freak out- it’s a slimy fish with a vampire mouth- but it’s very exciting and it gets a good reaction,” Lawrence said. 

Learn more about what the GLFC does here.

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