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Restoring a Culturally Important Fishery

Warm Springs Tribal Member Aldwin Keo Explores Ways to Sustain a Traditional Fishery

Article by Ralph Bartholdt, University Communications
Photos by Aldwin Keo and University Visual Productions

Aldwin Keo belongs to the river people.

The Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs that live along the Columbia River and its tributaries once relied on the seasonal influx of migrating fish as a food source to sustain themselves. 

The rivers’ marine life infuses the tribe’s culture and history.

It may seem natural therefore that Keo, a doctoral candidate in the University of Idaho’s fisheries department, centers his research on a migratory fish native to the Columbia system. But the fish in question, the focus of his research, isn’t often on the minds of people who are vastly more familiar with the many trout and salmon that return to the river from the ocean to spawn.

“I’m the only one in my tribe who works with lamprey,” Keo said.

Pacific lamprey, known to most tribes simply as “eels,” are a boneless, indigenous fish of the Pacific Northwest that, like salmon, live for many years in the ocean before migrating to freshwater streams to spawn and die. To climb freshwater rapids encountered on its journey inland, the fish uses its sucking-disc mouth to scale rocks.

A man with a chin beard and black hair, stands in a stream wearing waders as he uses a marine electroshocking device to stun small fish.
Aldwin Keo catches small lamprey in a stream on the Warm Springs Reservation in Oregon.

The goal is to have a self-sustaining fishery. Aldwin Keo. Graduate student.


As part of a contingent of tribes of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, or CRTFC, Keo has been translocating returning Pacific lamprey from the Columbia River upstream to spawning areas to ensure enough mature lamprey bypass the river’s system of dams and reproduce. 

To do this, biologists like Keo catch lamprey below the dams and at traditional harvest sites like Sherars Falls of the Deschutes River, load them into tanker trucks and drive the fish upstream where the lamprey are released into tributaries.

The idea is to allow the dwindling population of native lamprey to safely reproduce, thereby rebounding populations to eventually allow a viable fishing season.

“We’ll never have the numbers we once had,” Keo said. “The goal is to have a self-sustaining fishery.”

Pacific lamprey were once so numerous in the Columbia and its tributaries in Washington, Oregon and Idaho – in Idaho, returning fish migrated in the Snake River past Boise, turning south to follow the Bruneau River into Nevada to spawn – that they were harvested seasonally in great numbers by tribes including the Nez Perce, Umatilla and Yakama. But river dams built since the beginning of the 20th century limited the lamprey’s ability to reach spawning grounds, causing populations to drop significantly.

A man with a chin beard and black hair, stands in a stream wearing waders as he uses a marine electroshocking device to stun small fish.
Aldwin Keo gathers data from a Pacific lamprey on the Warm Springs Reservation in Oregon.

Keo’s research explores ways to improve fish ladders to accommodate Pacific lamprey, and he follows the fish to spawning areas to learn their survival and regeneration rates, said Chris Caudill, a U of I fisheries professor.

“Aldwin’s project aims to improve the understanding of Pacific lamprey on the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs nation reservation and surrounding watersheds,” Caudill said. “He is working to increase lamprey abundance by evaluating behavior and movement of lamprey after the fish are collected and transported around downstream dams.”

The project includes Keo working as a member of his tribe to increase knowledge and connection to a fish that was a traditional first food and cultural symbol.

“First food” is another name for foods that were staples at tribal feasts, served at large gatherings, and deemed historically significant to the river tribes.

Keo’s work at U of I continues more than two decades of effort to understand the migration behavior of adult lamprey. The research has helped develop effective fish passage for the species in the Columbia Basin and improved co-management of lamprey and salmon by regional tribal, state and federal management agencies. 

U of I researchers played an important role in the construction of Lamprey Passage Systems — modifications to dams that allowed lamprey to pass over the dams similar to fish ladders built for migrating salmon. The passage systems were developed by NOAA-Fisheries, U of I and Army Corps of Engineers two decades ago and have been installed at many dams in the Pacific Northwest.

Christopher Caudill, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Fisheries

CNR 105C


Email Christopher Caudill

Department of Fish and Wildlife Sciences

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The history of the lamprey in tribal culture includes a creation story that Keo learned from a video on YouTube:

Lamprey was a gambler, and he was at a stream beating beaver and muskrat at the stick game — a gambling game — and collecting their possessions when coyote, the creator, passed by. Coyote challenged lamprey to a game. He beat lamprey over and over until lamprey had no more possessions to gamble, but lamprey refused to quit. He bet his arms and legs and lost, but still refused to concede to coyote. Because of his lack of humility in defeat, coyote chastised lamprey.

“Your mouth got you in trouble,” coyote told lamprey. “Now you have to swim upstream sucking on rocks.”

Keo’s research will make sure the Pacific lamprey flourishes and continues to travel the Columbia River and its tributaries in sustainable numbers – and climb the same rapids and falls it has scaled for centuries, by sucking on and squiggling up rocks.

A tiny lamprey held in the palm of someone’s hand.
A small Pacific lamprey will stay in a fresh water stream for several years before moving downstream to the ocean and returning several years later to their home streams to spawn.

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