Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Stone Sucker of the Sea, fish number 20, Sea Lamprey

We headed down to Manchester to the Amoskeag Fishways for Sea Lamprey Appreciation Day. It was a sort of homecoming for us since we met each other years ago at this fish ladder and education center on the Merrimack River.

Back when we worked there, we started this quirky event to raise awareness about this often misunderstood fish.  The event features educational games and presentations, but the highlight are live lampreys in a touch tank!

Now about a dozen years later, we are still on a mission to help people love the sea lamprey as much as we do.  Sure, they look and act like giant leeches, but we challenge anyone to find a more fascinating creature swimming in Granite State waters. 

"I just want to be loved, is that so wrong?"
So please indulge us as we share a little information with our readers about this really cool fish.

Sea lampreys (Petromyzon marinus) are:
  • common in coastal New England and can be found on the European side too. 
  • typically anadromous like a salmon, hatching in freshwater streams, migrating to the ocean to become adults and then returning to the freshwater streams to spawn and die.
  • parasitic while in the ocean, attaching to fish and sucking their blood.Their mouths are full of teeth and their tongue is like a drill bit that bores into their prey.
  • an invasive species in the Great Lakes where they feed on lake trout. They got past Niagara Falls when people built a shipping canal to connect the ocean with the Great Lakes.Here in their native habitat they are perfect citizens of the ecosystem. 
  • about three feet long here, but much smaller in the Great Lakes
  • evolutionarily primitive with seven gill slits, no bones, and one nostril on the top of their heads.
  • wicked cool because they have a light colored "third eye" on the top of their head that can sense light.

Sea lampreys are:

  • not parasites while in New Hampshire streams on their spawning run. They do not eat at all!
  • great parents, because they build nests for their eggs by clearing out shallow stone pits using their mouths. 
  • designed perfectly because they have been on Earth in the current form since before dinosaurs! 

The Fishways has a sea lamprey touch tank! See the light "third eye" on its head?
OK, So you would not want to French one.

They have a similar smile!
Sea lampreys are:
  • not eels. Eels are have a much more modern design and are more like "normal" fish than sea lampreys.  (See our last post for more on eels). 
  • lovable. Just give them a chance. .

Clay wrangles a lamprey
Sea Lamprey's can't be caught through angling, so they must be caught in other ways, so we invoked rule number one, interesting techniques can be used besides angling and number four, we can deputize guest anglers into the quest,  The Fishways, working with USFW caught this for us in a fish elevator on the Merrimack.

We aren't sure of the rules for catching these fish if you are a regular angler, but during migration they do stick to rocks and in theory you could walk up to one and pick it up. We find they are easier to hold if you are wearing wet gloves and you put your thumb in their mouths.
Lamprey turns on Clay

Fish gives Clay a big hickey!

Clay gets even!


During the next blog entry we'll tell you how we prepared and ate a sea lamprey! 


  1. Nice photps of the attack and getting revenge! You just missed one photo! Was there any damage? Did it draw blood?

  2. Sadly this female didn't leave a mark that was worth taking a picture of, a few years ago I let one attach to me and I had a great bloody circle on my arm and it scabbed up and looked awesome...This one really wasn't interested in biting me...for the record Lampreys during their spawning run will not drill a hole in something, they are not eating at all, they suck on to things to rest...

    1. If you stick your finger in their mouth can they do some serious damage? They look like they can really hurt you real bad. I don't know maybe their teeth aren't as sharp as they look... although I've seen some pictures of fish that got bitten by lampreys.

  3. Keep up the good work guys. Not only is the quest informative, but entertaining too! I got some underwater video of them spawning this year. It was a real good year for them, and there were bunches of Lamprey in all the seacoast ladders on the days I was with F&G.

  4. We'd love to see the spawning video! We would be happy to add it to our blog and credit you with the video... Have you eaten a lamprey yet?
    Thanks for the support!

  5. Please let a lamprey fasten itself to your eye socket. I'm curious as to whether it would suck your eye juices out, or if it could suck your eyeball out.

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  7. Is blood the only thing they eat/live on?