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Cooperative Study: Reconnaissance of Emerging and Legacy Contaminants in the Habitat and Tissues of the Pacific Lamprey in the Columbia River Basin—Phase 1, Larvae

Contact: Elena Nilsen

Lamprey juveniles

Lamprey larvae (ammocoetes)


Pacific lamprey (Entosphenus tridentatus) have declined in recent decades to the point where regional extinction could be imminent. Tribes in the Columbia River Basin have relied on Pacific lamprey for food and medicine for generations. Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC) researchers are working to understand the role of waterborne contaminants as a potential threat to the survival of the species and to Tribal health as part of a larger restoration initiative.

The focus of Phase 1 of this joint USGS–CRITFC study is to provide reconnaissance-based information to improve understanding of exposure and bioaccumulation of organic contaminants in larval Pacific lamprey in the Columbia River Basin. Their feeding mode (filter feeding) makes the larval (ammocoete) life stage particularly susceptible to bioaccumulating organic contaminants that bind to sediment and organic matter. This study will focus primarily on larvae because it is a key life stage about which little is known relative to contaminant burden. Larvae are resident, and, therefore, contaminants in their tissues represent bioaccumulation from the stream in which the larvae were sampled. To provide more information on the role of contaminants in the lamprey life cycle, juveniles and adults will be analyzed in Phase 2.

Contaminants of concern include polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) flame retardants, organochlorine pesticides, contaminants of emerging concern (CECs—pharmaceuticals and personal care products, waste indicators, semi-volatile organics [see video, below]), and others. Many of these compounds have the potential to pose both an ecological threat to the organism and a threat to human health via consumption of adult lamprey. Analysis of sediment samples from the study areas for the full range of compounds will provide information to help determine whether we need to analyze a wider suite of tissue and/or sediment samples for these compounds in future years.


The primary objectives of the proposed study are to:

  1. Collaborate with CRITFC to assess contaminant concentrations in larval Pacific lamprey (and adults and juveniles if available) from key study areas within the Columbia River Basin and to investigate contaminant accumulation in lamprey and its effects on lamprey habitat use, distribution, survival, and life history in the basin
  2. Establish a baseline of information that will support detailed future laboratory studies and/or statistically robust field collections that will be necessary to understand contaminant impacts on Pacific lamprey at different life stages and sites
  3. Publish data analyses and interpretation of the study findings that will help clarify the potential threat of toxic contamination to Pacific lamprey populations and implications for human health
Electroshocking for lamprey

Andrew Wildbill (Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs) electroshocking in Abernathy Creek near Oregon City as part of USGS-CRITFC-Tribes collaboration to study toxics in Pacific lamprey in the Columbia River Basin.


Personnel from Yakama Nation, Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs (CTWS), and Confederated Tribes of Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR) have been collecting juvenile lamprey as part of their larger restoration planning effort, and are collecting additional samples for this work in collaboration with USGS. The date range for the study is May 2011–May 2014.

Lamprey larvae are collected by electroshocking and netting at the surface. Personnel record length, weight, date, time, and location of collection. Larval subsamples are selected from among the larger pool of samples collected at each of the subbasins of particular interest: Willamette River, Hood River, Deschutes River, 15-Mile Creek, Yakima River, and Umatilla River. We may add samples from additional sites if sample numbers support the addition and funds are available.

Target analytes include more than 50 halogenated organic contaminants. Selected samples will also be analyzed for a full suite of anthropogenic waste indicator compounds. For analysis of organic contaminants, the general laboratory procedure for both sediment and tissue samples is high-pressure solvent extraction, clean up, and concentration followed by quantification by gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GCMS) and/or high performance liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry (HPLC/MS). Organic carbon in sediments will be determined by loss on ignition, grain size by wet-sieve and/or SediGraph methods, and lipid content of tissues by a gravimetric method.


Reconnaissance of contaminants in larval Pacific lamprey (Entosphenus tridentatus) tissues and habitats in the Columbia River Basin, Oregon and Washington, USA, by Elena B. Nilsen, Whitney B. Hapke, Brian McIlraith, and Dennis Markovchick.





Video: Emerging Contaminants in the Columbia River
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A transcript is available at


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