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Eel River to some, Wiya’t to the tribe that fishes it

The Eel River runs through Lake, Mendocino, and Trinity counties before reaching the Pacific Ocean in southern Humboldt County. Its name was given by Josiah Gregg in 1850 as he was exploring and looking for land to settle. Coming upon a group of Indigenous Wiyot fishermen, he traded a frying pan for some Pacific lampreys, which he mistook for eels.

Those Wiyot fishermen had probably been up most of the night — a good time for catching lamprey. Some of the best fishing spots were in the breaking waves at the river’s mouth. Waving redwood-splinter torches over the water, they attracted the lamprey with the flames. With quick reflexes and a carved stick, they snatched them from the water. And because lampreys are so slippery, the Wiyot twirl them over their heads before setting them on dry ground — otherwise they can slide off back into the river.

Pacific Lamprey have cartilaginous skeletons; an ancient vertebrate, they have spinal cords but no true spines. Eels and lamprey both lack scales, but eels have bony skeletons. Like other fish, lampreys do have gills and fins. And like salmon, they are born in freshwater and go to sea as young adults. With sucker-like mouths, they feed on whales and large fish, grow and mature, then return to freshwater to spawn and die.

With eight times more fat than salmon and 20% more protein, lampreys are an important food for the Wiyot and other coastal tribes. Densely nutritious, they’re used in ceremonies and fed to young children. Historically lamprey were found all the way from Baja California to Alaska and Japan. But over the last couple hundred years their numbers have been declining. Dams, which block spawning runs, and degraded water quality are two of the culprits. While not yet threatened or endangered, they are listed as a “species of concern.”

Since 1908, a hydropower and diversion project has blocked lamprey from reaching 150 miles of the upper Eel. The water behind two dams is diverted into the Russian River, where it supplies over a half-million people in Sonoma and Marin counties. The next glass of water you drink will probably include some Eel River water. While the river has been compromised, it has also been protected as a “Wild and Scenic River” since 1972. PG&E is now considering decommissioning those hydropower dams, which would improve habitat and increase the populations of lamprey, salmon, and steelhead.

After Gregg’s amiable trade with those Wiyot fishermen, the tribe remained peaceful, even as many white people settled on their traditional lands. In 1860, while the tribe was conducting its World Renewal ceremony on Tuluwat, an island in Humboldt Bay, they were attacked and murdered. Other attacks soon occurred nearby and along the Eel; as many as 400 Wiyot died. Though it was an open secret who the perpetrators were, they were never brought to justice.

Amazingly, in the years since, the Wiyot survived as a people and today are experiencing a profound cultural renewal. A significant step was the deeding of Tuluwat back to the tribe in 2019. Another is working with conservation agencies and organizations to restore lamprey habitat and rekindle traditional stewardship of the river from which they take their name. We call it the Eel. They call it Wiya’t, which means ‘abundance.’

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