Life's River - Saving the Pacific Lamprey
The deck of a ship may not be what immediately comes to mind as a typical college laboratory. But for Heritage junior Patrick Feller, the National Science Foundation’s research vessel Oceanus was both home and classroom as he completed the fieldwork portion of his summer internship.
Feller, an environmental sciences major, spent 10 weeks at the Oregon Health and Science University Center for Coastal Margin Observation and Prediction (CMOP) researching the Pacific lamprey. This 450 million-year-old species of fish was once plentiful in the estuaries and tributaries of the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean. But since the 1960s their numbers have dropped dramatically, from the high millions to a mere 20,000 counted at Bonneville Dam in 2011.
“The Pacific lamprey is culturally significant to the indigenous people of the Columbia River Basin,” said Feller. “It is a sacred first food that is as important as salmon.”
More than that, said Feller, the rapid destruction of this species points to an issue of much wider concern— the overall health of the watershed. Man-made constructions like bridges and dams on the Columbia River change the water’s properties, such as its temperature, salinity, oxygen concentrations, depth and speed of flow. This reduces the habitat available for fish that need specific conditions in which to thrive. Combine these changes with obstructions that interrupt the fish’s spawning cycle and you have the recipe for a dying species, the impact of which is felt hundreds of miles upstream in inland forests.
“It’s the circle of life,” said Feller. The lampreys get their nutrients from the sea. When they spawn up river and die, they are eaten by tiny animals in the water and by land animals that spread their nutrients along the forest floor, which in turn feed the trees and shrubs, he explained.
As part of his internship, Feller spent two weeks deep in research on a specific portion of the lamprey’s habitat during its migration. He was one of 25 people—a mix of crew members, scientists and students—who traveled along the mouth of the Columbia River from Astoria to Cathlamet Bay. The group sampled the waters looking for areas called estuary turbidity maximum zones (ETMs), places where the ocean’s tides push into the fresh water of the river and converge. The environment, said Feller, is harsh. Cool, dense salt water sinks to the bottom while warm fresh water rises to the top. Sediment from the river bottom churns and rises. Oxygen levels in the water can fall to levels where nothing can live.
Feller and his fellow scientists used a device called a conductivity temperature depth instrument pack (CTD) to build a profile on columns of water. Feller was in charge of manning the lines of the equipment as it was dropped to the river floor and raised to various depths over the course of 90 minutes to two hours. The CTD provided point-in- time measurements of the water’s conductivity, salinity, temperature, depth and turbidity, helping the scientists to identify ETMs. Scientists aboard the Oceanus used the data for a variety of experiments on-site, and samples were preserved for later observations as well.
“It was really hard work,” said Feller. “When the data was good, we worked straight on through, sixteen to eighteen hours at a time.”
As Feller worked on the Oceanus, he kept in mind the lamprey and the challenges they face living in and migrating through the river.
“A profile of the water column in Cathlamet Bay was quite alarming, as the temperature was about 22 degrees centigrade. That is much too warm for any fish to migrate and survive in,” he said.
The experience of working in a lab, on the Oceanus and with such a wide array of people from the scientific community had a profound impact on Feller. With a little more than two years left until he finishes his bachelor’s degree, he’s starting to consider his options for graduate study.
“It was very cool to be part of this team, to work with all of these people from different disciplines and to see how they work together to problem solve,” he said. “I only got a taste of the excitement of working in the field. It made graduate school seem like something I can actually obtain.”
Feller is considering continuing his studies in either environmental engineering or biogeochemistry after graduating from Heritage.