PLATTSBURGH, N.Y. — Nancy Papineau still shudders at the memory of the slimy tangle of suction-cup-filled mouths and tooth-laden tongues in the fish tank at Dave Richard's Bait Shop. "Absolutely gross. Horrible," she says.
Richard agrees: Sea lampreys aren't a pretty sight. Nonetheless, he has displayed them off and on for four years. With lampreys threatening the local sportfishing industry, Richard wants folks to know what they look like.
"It's real serious," said Richard, who also fishes commercially. "I'd say if they don't control them the lake will be dead within the next 10 years. They're getting on everything."
Hitched Rides on Boats
No one knows for certain how the lampreys, which are indigenous to the ocean and have no natural predator, entered Lake Champlain. One theory suggests that they hitched rides on boats. Regardless of how they arrived, they have been there for over a century--and lately, people who rely on the lake for their livelihoods don't like what they are seeing.
Goose Gagnon is one of them. He quit his job in a furniture factory last year to devote all his time to commercial fishing. "There will be days when you come out and every fish you land has a (lamprey) hit on them, more than one," said Gagnon, who has been fishing the lake for more than 30 years. "Some I've cut open and I refuse to eat because the meat looked bad."
Gagnon's not alone.
"I've seen fish jump that had five or six (lampreys) on 'em, and usually they're about 8 inches long," said Ken Coleman, who moved to Willsboro from Michigan 3 years ago. "And they will stay with that fish as long as possible. In most cases that one hit doesn't kill the fish. This is why you'll see fish with scars. And if they lose that fish they'll take another one, so they may go through three or four fish until they reach their full size."
"It's pretty severe," acknowledged Paul Neff, an aquatic biologist with the New York State Bureau of Fisheries. "Sea lamprey activity is intense, there's a big population, in the many tens of thousands. We should be seeing fish 8 to 15 pounds, and we just aren't seeing them. Lake Champlain historically had a tremendous population of Atlantic salmon, and that population went right down the tubes. It also had a good lake trout population, and that went right down the tubes."
Can Live Up to 17 Years
Lampreys are blamed for much of that loss. They spawn in wetlands and streams that feed the lake, and their larvae can live there for 3 or more years. Tom Jolliff, sea lamprey unit leader for the New York Bureau of Fisheries, says one female might spawn up to 100,000 eggs at a time. And each lamprey can live up to 17 years, killing 40 pounds of fish during its life.
Lampreys, which can grow longer than 20 inches, normally do their damage in the deepest extremities of their habitat. Using their mouths and tongues, the lampreys latch onto fish, bore holes in their sides and literally suck the life out of the fish until they are near death.
These days the lampreys in Lake Champlain--the sixth-largest freshwater lake in the nation--are acting more like predators than the parasites they actually are. Their favorite targets are no longer just salmon and lake trout.
"They're hitting pike and bass--scaly, warm-water fish that they never hit before," said Mike Brown, an outdoors writer who lives on the lake. "I caught a lot of pike last year that were 32 inches long and only weighed 3 pounds. They were like stick fish."
"The lamprey bothers the lake trout and the salmon, but it's nothing compared to the job it's doing on the brown trout and the steelheads," said Coleman, who dealt with a similar problem in the Great Lakes when he worked for the Michigan game department. "You don't see a brown trout in here more than 2 years old."
Swimmers Being Hit
Fishermen, aren't the only ones feeling the effects.
"Swimmers are even being hit," said New York Assemblyman Chris Ortloff, whose district borders the lake. "What that tells us is that there are so many lamprey that they're indiscriminately attaching themselves to whatever swims by because there simply aren't enough trout and salmon in the lake to support them all."
The situation has been getting worse since the mid-1970s--ever since New York and Vermont began stocking hundreds of thousands of salmon and trout every year to make the 125-mile-long lake a sport-fishing mecca.
John Anderson, a Vermont fisheries manager, says one reason for the stocking was to study the lamprey problem.
"Some people think we've dragged our feet," Anderson said. "But if we went ahead (and treated the lake without evaluating the situation) we'd have been hauled into the courts and we'd be there forever."
Still, the study has taken nearly a decade and makes no sense to Coleman. "Why on Earth they ever did what they did is beyond me," he says. "They re-created the fishery backward. They should have treated the lampreys first and then stocked the fish. They gave them food so, bang, the population soared."