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Sea Lamprey (Petromyzon marinus)

Sea lamprey are primitive, jawless fish native to the Atlantic Ocean. Like salmon and alewife, sea lamprey are native ocean fish that spawn in fresh water. Historically, sea lamprey have inhabited Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River, as they are open to the Atlantic Ocean. In 1921, lampreys appeared in Lake Erie for the first time, arriving via the Welland Canal, which was constructed for ships to avoid Niagara Falls on their way up the St. Lawrence Seaway. Shortly thereafter, sea lamprey quickly populated all of the upper Great Lakes.

The sea lamprey is an aggressive parasite with a toothed, funnel-like sucking mouth and rasping tongue, which is used to bore into the flesh of other fishes to feed on their blood and body fluids. A single lamprey will destroy up to 40 pounds (18 kilograms) of fish during its adult lifetime. Sea Lamprey are so destructive that, under some conditions, only one out of seven fish attacked will survive. In the 1940s and 1950s, sea lamprey populations became excessive in the Great Lakes, which contributed significantly to the collapse of fish species that ere an economic mainstay of a vibrant Great Lakes fishery.

Currently the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, in cooperation with Fisheries and Oceans Canada and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spend millions of dollars annually to control the sea lamprey population in the great lakes. Ongoing control efforts have been very successful, as a 90% reduction of sea lamprey populations in most areas has been achieved. This has created a healthier environment for fish survival and spawning.

General Characteristics

  • Sea lamprey are generally 12 to 20 inches long
  • They weigh 8 to 13 ounces each
  • Sea lamprey are grayish blue-black with metallic violet on their sides with silver white coloration on the underside

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This page last modified on May 04, 2016     © 1996 – 2019 Regents of the University of Minnesota     The University of Minnesota is an equal opportunity educator and employer.
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