Application of Harm Reduction Thinking to the Conservation of Uncharismatic Species

Joy Wade

The conversations around planetary health are, for the most part, defeatist. There are individual stories of actions and successes, but these seem few and far between in popular and scientific publications. Nevertheless, we crave them. People, the party responsible for negative impacts on the planet, have growing feelings of powerlessness towards the likelihood of positive outcomes. But there are solutions if we should so choose to see them and work towards them. The first step is to define achievable, incremental improvements that people, whether individuals, governments, or conservation agencies, are willing to work towards together. It is important to set realistic expectations for desired outcomes. Too often we strive for a lofty goal that cannot be achieved, and this results in disappointment. Realism is not a failure; we must accept that our actions (or inactions) have consequences and sometimes those consequences are irreversible, and we must place our efforts elsewhere. Working towards an ideal of past generations is in most circumstances unrealistic. Not only has the situation changed, the societal expectations may also have changed.

With a growing list of species at risk, it is important to be realistic. In Canada, for example, there are over 1,000 species of mosses, lichens, plants, and animals on the public registry of species at risk. These species are afforded certain protections and there are legal requirements for certain documents, including recovery strategies and action plans. Given this increasingly enormous and diverse list of species at risk, their distribution over a country as large as Canada and multiple legislative jurisdictions affecting their conservation, it is unreasonable to expect equal attention to all species. The highly charismatic species, such as the North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis), beluga whale (Delphinapterus

Photographs of the threatened Cowichan Lake lamprey (top), and endangered Morrison Creek lamprey (bottom)

FIGURE 19.1 Photographs of the threatened Cowichan Lake lamprey (top), and endangered Morrison Creek lamprey (bottom).

leucas), or polar bear (Ursus maritimus), receive much more investment by individuals, governments, and conservation groups than, for instance, boreal felt lichen (Eriodermapedicellatum), dusky dune moth (Copablepharon longipenne), or the Banff longnose dace (Rhinichthys cataractae smithi), of which most people have never heard. We must accept that as humans, the value of animals and plants are different, and we have favourites. Although the inherent or ecological value of the beluga whale may be no greater than that of the dusky dune moth, they have a greater social value. A particular challenge for those trying to protect less charismatic species is finding motivations and methods to ensure their ability to be resilient in their current situation and to be able to adapt to future scenarios in the absence of social motivations. One way in which this can be achieved is through a harm reduction approach (Stephen et al., 2018). This chapter illustrates the application of this method using a case study for two fish species listed under Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA) in British Columbia (BC): the Cow'ichan Lake lamprey (Entosphenus macrostomus) and the Morrison Creek lamprey (Lampetra richardsoni marifuga) (Figure 19.1).


Cowichan Lake lamprey is a small [maximum length approximately 273 mm (Beamish 1982)], parasitic lamprey found in one watershed on Vancouver Island, BC, and nowhere else in the world (MacConnachie and Wade, 2016). It was first described in Beamish (1982) and was listed as Threatened on Schedule 1 of the Species at Risk Act in 2003. Its listing is largely a result of it being an extreme endemic, a population of fish found only in one location. Based on what is known of other similar species, most of its life is spent as a filter feeding ammocoete (larvae) burrowed in the sediment (Beamish and Wade, 2008). After many years (five or more based on other species), ammocoetes undergo metamorphosis into an adult, which feeds parasitically. It is estimated that it feeds for a year or year and a half before it spawns and dies. The precise details, including timing and habitat requirements, are largely unknown or estimated based on other species of lamprey. Cowichan Lake and the adjoining Mesachie Lake are part of a water retention system serving the Cowichan valley. There is a regulated weir which was installed in 1957 (Stephen and Wade, 2018) to maintain water levels in Cowichan Lake to meet downstream needs in the summer and early fall. The water licence is currently held by a local wood mill which regulates the amount of water flowing into Cowichan River to meet the economic and ecological needs downstream of the Lake.

This species exists in a complicated multi-user watershed. At its most basic level, the watershed supports many tangible human priorities, including an active logging industry, residential and recreational use, tourism, First Nations rights to access anadromous salmon, small-scale businesses relying on water in both the Lake and the River, sewage treatment, drinking water, agriculture, and a pulp mill (Wade and MacConnachie, 2016). Ecologically, both Cowichan Lake and River are habitat for resident fishes, crustaceans, amphibians, plants, and birds. The Cowichan River has been traditionally and currently is an important Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) river. The Lakes and surrounding terrestrial environment are highly valued both for supporting livelihoods as well as recreation. When making decisions regarding the watershed, and in this case the management of water resources, efforts are made to weigh all these needs. If those needs cannot be defined, they cannot be considered. This has been the case for Cowichan Lake lamprey. Although they are a protected species, they are poorly understood, largely understudied, and have low social value. They are a parasitic fish, which prey on highly valued recreational species and are seen to many as a pest, if not of no value at all. The “vampire” reputation of lampreys in general does the conservation of this species a great disservice. It is naive to think the regulation of water in Cowichan Lake would be focused on the habitat needs of these lamprey rather than jobs or other highly valued species such as Chinook salmon. Their low social value and the general lack of knowledge of the needs of the species results in a situation where evidence-based arguments cannot be made to specify effective and acceptable conservation actions.

In recent years, applications have been approved to allow pumping of water from Cowichan Lake into the River when insufficient flow was available to sustain ecological and economic functions downstream. Depending on the time of year, this type of drawdown could decrease or eliminate the available spawning and rearing habitat for the Cowichan Lake lamprey. This was a compromise that the permitting agency felt appropriate under the circumstances. As an isolated event, it is reasonable to assume that the current spawning generation of lamprey would be mostly impacted from a drawdown as other year classes are present as ammocoetes that spend multiple years burrowed in the near-shore area and could move if conditions became unfavourable. Although a recent study with Pacific lamprey (£. tridentatus) ammocoetes has shown that they do not readily move under de-watering conditions. With a rapidly changing climate in the region, the likelihood of drawdowns is no longer a rarity. With what appears to be a new norm of low winter precipitation and extended summer droughts, available spawning and early rearing habitat is being compromised by low Lake water levels even without the added stress of an emergency water drawdown. Various committees, groups, and levels of government concluded that an increase in the height of the weir to accommodate more water storage in the rainier winter season and greater flexibility in regulation throughout the year is the best way to address ecological and social demands for water. Only a few lakeside landowners object to this plan because they would lose some beachfront in the winter storage period. Although plans are moving forward to replace the current weir, to date, no group has stepped forward to accept the sole cost, responsibility, and liability of the operation and maintenance of the weir. As this weir is mutually beneficial, it would be unreasonable to presume that the current single operator would continue to hold the water licence.

Morrison Creek lamprey is another example of an extreme endemic. It is found only in Morrison Creek and a few small tributaries flowing into it, in Courtenay, BC, on Vancouver Island. Morrison Creek is less than 24 km long and extends from rural headwaters through an urban town to the confluence with a larger river (Wade et al„ 2015). Morrison Creek lamprey are unique in that they are thought to be an intermediate form between a parasitic and non-parasitic lamprey, and, thus, an example of an evolving species. The Morrison Creek lamprey population produces two distinct life history types: a freshwater non-parasitic lamprey, the Western Brook lamprey (£. richardsoni) and a parasitic (silver) variety (L. richardsoni marifuga) (Beamish, 1987). There are no other known living examples of two life history types of the same species of lamprey existing at the same time.

The watershed is in the coastal Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) biogeocli- matic zone made up of interlinking wetlands with meadows, thick brush, beaver dams, and ponds (Wade et ah, 2015). The area was heavily logged and is now comprised mostly of second growth trees in areas where urban development has not occurred. A great diversity of species exists in the watershed, including large mammals, such as black bear (Ursus americanus) and Roosevelt elk (Cervus elaphus roosevelti), and less obvious residents like amphibians, signal crayfish (Pacifastacus lenisculus), three-spined stickleback (Gasterostreus aculeatus), as well as resident and anadromous salmon (Wade et ah, 2015). On the surface, Morrison Creek is a typical, quasi-urban Canadian creek. However, something unique in this watershed gave rise to a most unique animal, the Morrison Creek lamprey. What these conditions or situations may have been or may still be are unknown and likely to remain unknown. Morrison Creek lamprey as a population of both parasitic and non-parasitic forms are currently listed as endangered under SARA.

Apart from the required documents which must be produced as a result of listing a species under the Species at Risk Act, there have been only a few studies of this lamprey conducted since the 1980s when it was first described (Beamish et ah, 2016). Most studies have attempted to be non-invasive and non-lethal as little is known of the potential impacts disturbance may have on the population. As a result, compounded in part by its cryptic nature, small size, and nocturnal activities, little is known of the basic biology of the animal. Morrison Creek lamprey reach a maximum size of approximately 142 mm (Beamish et ah, 2016) and have not been observed feeding parasitically in the wild. Unlike the Cowichan Lake lamprey, which leaves substantial scars on highly valued recreational fish, there have been no reports of scars on fish in Morrison Creek. While this makes the Morrison Creek lamprey less of a threat to recreational fisheries values than the Cowichan Lake lamprey, it does not help to increase awareness for the animal or the need for habitat protection. Land-based activities can impact the aquatic habitat by altering water quality with sedimentation or pollutants, impacting riparian habitat, or altering run-off rates (National Recovery Team for Morrison Creek Lamprey, 2007). Urbanization is a primary driver of these threats. Urban development pressures are increasing around the creek and water courses have been disrupted for road construction and land development.


It is possible in these complex situations to take actions to reduce harm for these lampreys to provide the best conditions possible for their continued survival. The harm reduction approach is a viable method to facilitate action in the presence of conflicting values and scientific unknowns, a feature of utmost importance in these rapidly changing environments. There are six principles of harm reduction (modified from Stephen et al., 2018) which are applied in both these situations to minimize the total amount and impact of a harm (Table 19.1).

For Cowichan Lake lamprey, harm reduction principles (Table 19.1) are guiding actions to build a willing coalition of people by increasing the positive reputation of the species through education actions and ensuring that Cowichan Lake lamprey and its habitat are considered in water management decision-making from the individual citizen to the federal government. A multi-pronged approach has been used to achieve this, including (i) targeted scientific studies to provide advice on the relationship between weir height and spawning area coverage and identification of areas used for spawning and early rearing and (ii) public dissemination of information through various methods, including scientific publications, public talks, signage, and a lamprey poetry book for children. Community members, various levels of government, and scientists are now engaged and involved in these activities. Although the work is ongoing, attitudes towards the species are changing and the needs of the species are now being considered by the watershed board in plans to increase lake water storage.

For Morrison Creek lamprey, ensuring an ongoing secure water supply is essential as they do not have the buffering capacity of a lake or even a large river. Similar to the Cowichan Lake lamprey, a multi-pronged approach by community

TABLE 19.1

Principles of Harm Reduction for Lamprey Conservation (Based on Stephen et al., 2018)



Focus on harms rather than eliminating hazards

Climate change and urbanization are complex and ongoing What can be done today to help the animals cope with the negative consequences of these pressures?


What changes are likely to happen given existing knowledge, partnerships, and regulations?

Solution oriented

Rather than working to discover more about the lamprey, what can we learn about the strengths, possibilities, and opportunities to reduce negative consequences now?

Use a multi-pronged approach

Are there synergistic and re-enforcing opportunities to act throughout the lamprey’s socio-ecological system?

Prioritize achievable goals

Are there incremental gains we can achieve that build trust, enthusiasm, and willingness to act within the current circumstances and state of knowledge?


How to engage a diversity of players in finding solutions throughout the chain of causation from hazard to harms

members, governments, and scientists has been used to reach this goal, including (i) public dissemination of information primarily through signage and engagement with local school children and town planning staff and (ii) targeted scientific studies to monitor habitat features and functions deemed important for lamprey. Because of decreases in catch rates of the silver form of Morrison Creek lamprey from the 1980s to the 2000s, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the regulatory agency, has decided to conduct less research on the population to reduce the potential harm from capture and handling as a result of scientific activities. Efforts have instead focused on ensuring habitat is adequate for their continued survival rather than addressing knowledge gaps. As such, two structural barriers to lamprey movement were identified (Wade and Beamish, 2014), which fragmented the Creek and prohibited upstream movement. Funding was procured and major restoration efforts were undertaken to eliminate these barriers in 2015. In a recent success, community driven efforts protected 22.6 hectares of private land in the headwaters of Morrison Creek. The protection of this habitat is a direct benefit for not only the Morrison Creek lamprey but also for ten other species at risk that live in this watershed. The fate of the lamprey played a significant part in outreach to donors to protect these lands.

For both the Morrison Creek lamprey and Cowichan Lake lamprey, it is not too late to act to reduce harms and build systems resilience, even in the face of low social value and large deficits in knowledge. They may be uncharismatic, underfunded, and woefully underappreciated, but it is possible to change people’s attitudes to promote the conservation of both the species and their habitat.


Beamish. Richard J. “Lompetra macrostoma, a New Species of Freshwater Parasitic Lamprey from the West Coast of Canada." Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, 39, no. 5 (1982): 736-747.

Beamish. Richard J. “Evidence That Parasitic and Non-Parasitic Life History Types Are Produced by One Population of Lamprey.” Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, 44 (1987): 1779-1782.

Beamish. Richard. J.. and Joy Wade. “Critical Habitat and the Conservation Ecology of the Freshwater Parasitic Lamprey. Lampetra macrostoma." Canadian Field- Naturalist, 122. no. 4 (2008): 327-337.

Beamish. Richard. Ruth Withler. Joy Wade, and Terry Beacham. “A Nonparasitic Lamprey Produces a Parasitic Life History Type: The Morrison Creek Lamprey Enigma,” in Jawless Fishes of the World, Vol. 1, eds. Alexei Orlov and Richard Beamish (Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing. 2016), 191-230.

MacConnachie, Sean E.M., and Joy Wade. "Information in Support of the Identification of Critical Habitat for the Cowichan (Vancouver) Lamprey (Entosphenus macros- tomus).” DFO Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat Research Document, 109 (2016): 17.

National Recovery Team for Morrison Creek Lamprey. “Recovery Strategy for the Morrison Creek Lamprey (Lampetra richardsoni var. marifuga) in Canada.” Species at Risk Act Recovery Strategy Series, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Ottawa (2007): 24.

Stephen, Craig, and Joy Wade. “Wildlife Population Welfare as Coherence Between Adapted Capacities and Environmental Realities: A Case Study of Threatened Lamprey on Vancouver Island." Frontiers in Veterinary Science, 5 (2018): 227.

Stephen, Craig. Julie Wittrock. and Joy Wade. “Using a Harm Reduction Approach in an Environmental Case Study of Fish and Wildlife Health." EcoHealth, 15, no. 1 (2018): 4-7.

Wade. Joy. and Richard Beamish. “Identification of Barriers Affecting the Movement of Morrison Creek Lamprey (Lampetra richardsoni marifuga) Within Its Natural Range.” Canadian Manuscript Report of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, 3043 (2014): 16.

Wade. Joy, and Sean MacConnachie. “Shared Values. Shared Success: Remediating Endangered Lamprey Habitat in British Columbia.” International Journal of UNESCO Biosphere Reserves, no. 1 (2016) remediating-endangered-lamprey-habitat-in-british-columbia-wade-macconnachie/

Wade. Joy, Nadine Pinned. Gabrielle Kosminder. and Sean MacConnachie. “Information to Support the Identification of Critical Habitat for the Morrison Creek Lamprey (Lampetra richardsoni var. marifuga).” DFO Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat Research Document, 31 (2015): 30.

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