HILLSBORO, N.Y. - First came the lake, formed 10,000
years ago by a receding glacier. Then came the canals,
linking the vast Lake Champlain to other waterways. Through
the canals came the sea lampreys, and life in the lake
has been out of kilter ever since.
Native to the ocean, where bigger fish keep them in
check, lampreys have no enemies here. Beneath the serene
beauty of the lake's surface, the eel-like fish prey on
salmon and lake trout. They cut holes through the sides
of the fish and remain attached for days, slowly sucking
The lampreys have also sucked the life out of the recreational
fishing industry of the lake, framed on the west by the
Adirondack Mountains of New York and on the east by the
Green Mountains of Vermont.
Now state officials on both sides of Lake Champlain
are working to mount a chemical attack on the lampreys,
believed to number in the millions, in the hope of restoring
the lake's historic ecological balance.
Fishermen have grown used to reeling in fish with lampreys
stuck to their sides. "Sometimes you get two lampreys
on one fish," said Jim Hotaling, who makes a living as
a charter boat captain in this spartan Adirondack village.
"We had one that looked like Medusa. You couldn't see
New York and Vermont, together with the United States
Fish and Wildlife Service, had tackled the lamprey scourge
once before. In an experimental program that ran for years
in the 1990's, officials treated a dozen streams and rivers
with a lampricide.
The program worked. Fishermen and state officials noted
a sharp drop in the number of fish wounds, as well as
improved survival rates for lake trout and salmon. Recreational
fishing improved, too, with a 76 percent increase in the
lake trout catch and a threefold increase in the salmon
But the joint chemical treatments came to an end, although
limited treatments continued in New York, and the lampreys
rebounded. "We're pretty much back to square one," said
Brian D. Chipman, a district fisheries biologist with
the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife.
After studying the results of the lampricide program,
officials decided to pursue a permanent treatment effort.
Five rivers and streams are being treated this fall: four
in New York and one in Vermont.
A single attack by a mature, two-foot-long lamprey against
a small trout can be fatal, scientists say. Larger trout
and salmon may survive numerous attacks, but are left
weakened. "We've handled lake trout with as many as 13
to 14 scars on them," said Larry Nashett, a regional fisheries
manager for the New York State Department of Environmental
The most strenuous opposition to the use of lampricide
has come from Vermont. A recent lawsuit charged that the
state and federal agencies had not adequately reviewed
the program's effects on other species, among other things.
But in early September, a United States District Court
judge upheld the environmental review and dismissed the
Even those who challenged the use of lampricide concede
that officials have few alternatives. "Doing nothing is
really not an option because the lamprey population is
so severe," said Ben Davis, the environmental advocate
for the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, a plaintiff
in the suit.
State officials are trying other tactics as well, from
trapping lampreys in the smallest tributaries to erecting
barriers across rivers to prevent the lampreys from spawning.
But for now, the lampricide 3-trifluoromethyl-4-nitrophenol,
or TFM, is the weapon of choice.
On a crystalline day, two dozen wildlife officials were
spread along a bank of the Salmon River, five miles south
of Plattsburgh, N.Y. They were overseeing the release
of 60 gallons of the lampricide into the river. "I expect
to kill tens of thousands today," Mr. Nashett said with
an air of satisfaction.
By early afternoon, biologists started to see dead lampreys
lying on the bottom of the Salmon River. Nearby, a minnow
swam vigorously through the treated water, apparently
"Lampreys are one of the most primitive fishes that
exist on the face of the earth, and they are very sensitive
to the chemical," said Gerald A. Barnhart, director of
the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation's
Division of Fish, Wildlife and Marine Resources.
The chemical assault is aided by the sea lamprey's physiology
and life cycle. The lampreys spend their first four years
as filter feeders in dozens of streams and rivers that
flow into the lake. There they grow to a length of six
inches, not much bigger than an earthworm.
Then they transform themselves into parasites - or,
as state officials prefer, predators - and migrate into
the lake, where they live for 12 to 18 more months. During
those months, the lampreys grow rapidly, adding 20 inches
in length and two inches in girth as they feast on the
blood of thin-skinned fish.
Mr. Barnhart said the lamprey's migration pattern was
a "real blessing" in that it allowed tributaries to be
treated every four years.
Still, a portion of several other fish species also
succumb to the lampricide, including log perch and stone
cats, a type of catfish. But those species are so abundant
in the 490-square-mile lake that their loss from the lampricide
is a mere blip, state officials say.
Some environmentalists say that correcting the ecological
makeup of the lake can be slippery, with one intervention
leading to another. They point out that the policy of
New York and Vermont to stock the lake with hundreds of
thousands of trout and salmon a year has provided lampreys
with their favorite food, thus bolstering the lamprey
population. That means more chemicals and, as a result,
harm to other species.
"We are not very good as a society at trying to correct
our mistakes," said Peter E. Bauer, executive director
of the Residents' Committee to Protect the Adirondacks,
an environmental group in North Creek, N.Y. "We built
these canals, which changed the composition of the fish
species, and now we're trying to change it back. But it's
hard to turn back nature's clock."
Perhaps no group is as eager to see the treatments resume
than the boat captains. Their livelihood depends on a
robust population of lake trout and salmon, the two most
popular species among fishermen.
Mr. Hotaling, 44, witnessed a startling turnaround in
the lake's trout and salmon during the experimental treatments.
Fish were bigger, with fewer scars, and were more abundant.
Mr. Hotaling even opened a bait and tackle store here
to complement his booming charter business.
But in 1998, the year after the joint treatment program
ended, the scars and wounds on the fish returned. "It
was like somebody flipped the light switch, and the lampreys
took off again," he said, skippering his 24-foot Crestliner
across the glassy lake. Fewer fishermen came, and this
spring he closed his tackle shop.
Steve Bradley, a former boat captain who abandoned the
business for a job in computers, is hopeful the renewed
treatments will help the industry. "The potential is phenomenal,"
he said. "If you could catch 10- to 20-pound fish in that
lake, with the setting you have there, it would just be
a fabulous thing."