The Nonindigenous Occurrences section of the NAS species profiles has a new structure. The section is now dynamically updated from the NAS database to ensure that it contains the most current and accurate information. Occurrences are summarized in Table 1, alphabetically by state, with years of earliest and most recent observations, and the tally and names of drainages where the species was observed. The table contains hyperlinks to collections tables of specimens based on the states, years, and drainages selected. References to specimens that were not obtained through sighting reports and personal communications are found through the hyperlink in the Table 1 caption or through the individual specimens linked in the collections tables.

Petromyzon marinus
Petromyzon marinus
(Sea Lamprey)
Native Transplant

Copyright Info
Petromyzon marinus Linnaeus, 1758

Common name: Sea Lamprey

Taxonomy: available through www.itis.govITIS logo

Identification: The sea lamprey is a jawless cartilaginous fish that is somewhat eel-like in appearance. This species has two closely-spaced but separate dorsal fins, no paired fins, seven gill openings on each side of its head, and a large round sucker-like mouth ringed with small, sharp teeth that act as a rasp along with a file-like tongue. Juvenile parasitic sea lamprey are 6 to 24 inches in length with smooth, scaleless skin that is mottled gray-blue to black, darker on top and fading to a lighter colored belly. Adult sea lamprey are 14 to 24 inches in length and exhibit mottled dark brown/black pigmentation. Several keys to the ammocetes of lampreys found in the Great Lakes region are available from Becker (1983); Page and Burr (1991); Jenkins and Burkhead (1994); and Vladykov and Kott (1980). For further identification resources, see Page and Burr 1991; Jenkins and Burkhead 1994.

Size: 120 cm anadromous; 64 cm landlocked

Native Range: Generally marine but ascends freshwater rivers to spawn. Atlantic Coast from the Gulf of St. Lawrence to the St. Johns River, Florida; Atlantic Coast of Europe and Mediterranean Sea (Page and Burr 2011).

Native range data for this species provided in part by NatureServe NS logo
Hydrologic Unit Codes (HUCs) Explained
Interactive maps: Point Distribution Maps

Nonindigenous Occurrences:

Table 1. States with nonindigenous occurrences, the earliest and latest observations in each state, and the tally and names of HUCs with observations†. Names and dates are hyperlinked to their relevant specimen records. The list of references for all nonindigenous occurrences of Petromyzon marinus are found here.

StateFirst ObservedLast ObservedTotal HUCs with observations†HUCs with observations†
IL193619982Des Plaines; Lake Michigan
IN194920144Lake Michigan; Little Calumet-Galien; St. Joseph; Tippecanoe
MI1934202134Au Gres-Rifle; Bad-Montreal; Betsie-Platte; Betsy-Chocolay; Black-Macatawa; Black-Presque Isle; Boardman-Charlevoix; Carp-Pine; Dead-Kelsey; Fishdam-Sturgeon; Kalamazoo; Keweenaw Peninsula; Lake Huron; Lake Michigan; Lake St. Clair; Lake Superior; Little Calumet-Galien; Lone Lake-Ocqueoc; Lower Grand; Manistee; Manistique River; Maple; Millecoquins Lake-Brevoort River; Muskegon; Ontonagon; Pere Marquette-White; St. Clair; St. Joseph; St. Marys; Sturgeon; Tacoosh-Whitefish; Tahquamenon; Thunder Bay; Waiska
MN194620012Beartrap-Nemadji; Lake Superior
NY1863201418Ausable River; Black; Buffalo-Eighteenmile; Cattaraugus; Grass; Irondequoit-Ninemile; Lake Champlain; Lake Erie; Lake Ontario; Mettawee River; Niagara River; Oneida; Raisin River-St. Lawrence River; Raquette; Salmon; Salmon-Sandy; Seneca; St. Regis
OH192720104Ashtabula-Chagrin; Chautauqua-Conneaut; Grand; Lake Erie
PA198520103Chautauqua-Conneaut; Lake Erie; Upper Ohio
WI195820148Bad-Montreal; Beartrap-Nemadji; Door-Kewaunee; Lake Michigan; Lake Superior; Lower Fox; Manitowoc-Sheboygan; Oconto

Table last updated 5/20/2024

† Populations may not be currently present.

Ecology: Sea lampreys are an ancient species that have retained their primitive ancestral characteristics from millions of years ago. This species is diadromous, spending the early stages of their life in streams and rivers and the middle stage of their life in the ocean or, in the case of the Great Lakes populations, in a large freshwater lake. They then return as breeding adults to spawn in the freshwater streams and rivers, and die shortly after spawning. The blind, worm-like larval lamprey, known as ammocoetes, can grow up to 5 inches long. They hatch from eggs in gravel nests in tributaries and drift downstream with the current. When they locate suitable habitat -- usually silt or sand stream bottoms and banks in slower-moving stretches of water -- they burrow in and take up residence, filter-feeding on algae, detritus and microscopic organisms and materials (Lake Champlain Sea Lamprey Control, 2020). Lampreys may stay in this larval form from 3-17 years. Nutrition levels in larval habitat may influence sex assignment in this fish, with larvae that consume more nutrients being more likely to develop as female (Bircenau 2017).

As they mature, the larval lampreys grow eyes and a sucker-like mouth. Once the ammocoetes’ transformation is complete, the sea lamprey leaves its burrow and moves downstream to open water. The sea lamprey is then ready to begin the next stage in its life as a parasite of fish: the juvenile sea lampreys move into deeper water and begin to seek host fish on which to feed over the course of 12-20 months. In the spring, adult  sea lamprey migrate up tributaries to sexually mature and spawn. Spawning streams are located by following pheromones released by ammocoetes living in those waters. Once they reach a suitable spawning site, usually rocky riffle areas that are shallow with fairly swift current, male and female sea lampreys build a nest, often called a redd. The female lays tens of thousands of eggs and the male fertilizes them, after which both adults die. Weeks later, the eggs hatch and the life cycle of the sea lamprey begins again (Lake Champlain Sea Lamprey Control, 2020).

Means of Introduction: Controversy exists as to whether the sea lamprey is native to Lake Ontario. Several believe it is native (e.g., Lawrie 1970; Smith 1985), suggesting that sea lamprey found in Lake Ontario and its tributaries, the Finger Lakes, and Lake Champlain represent relict populations from the last Pleistocene glaciation. Those contending that it is not native believe that this species, unknown in Lake Ontario prior to the 1830s, had most likely entered the inland lake from Atlantic coastal drainages via the artificially created Erie Canal (e.g., Emery 1985). Whether or not the sea lamprey is native to Lake Ontario, this species is not native to the other Great Lakes and tributaries where it is now readily found. The sea lamprey was previously prevented from spreading into Lake Erie and the rest of the Great Lakes basin by Niagara Falls. The Welland Canal, opened in 1829, bypassed Niagara Falls providing a route to Lake Erie from Lake Ontario (Aron and Smith 1971). From the opening of the Welland Canal (1829) to the discovery of sea lamprey in Lake Erie (1921), there is almost a century difference. Yet sea lamprey was found throughout the Great Lakes to the farthest Great Lake, Lake Superior, within twenty-five years of their arrival to Lake Erie. The improvements done to the Welland Canal in 1919 are likely the change that facilitated sea lamprey immigration into Lake Erie (1921) (Great Lakes Fishery Commission, 2019).

Status: Widespread populations overwinter and reproduce in tributaries throughout the Great Lakes basin. This species was common in Lakes Michigan and Huron by the 1930s and in eastern Lake Superior by the 1940s; abundance was initially low in Lake Ontario (Applegate 1950; Emery 1985) and Lake Erie (Smith 1985), but has fluctuated ever since. As an example: abundance in Lake Erie was historically low, increased substantially after 2004, and is currently dropping -- estimated to be around 20,000 individuals (Status of Sea Lamprey, 2019).

Impact of Introduction: Attack and parasitic feeding on other fishes by adult lampreys often results in death of the prey, either directly from the loss of fluids and tissues or indirectly from secondary infection of the wound (Phillips et al. 1982). Of the fish that survived attacks by lampreys, 85% of various species had been attacked up to five times (Scott and Crossman 1973). The species' introduction to the Great Lakes and its later abundance, combined with water pollution and overfishing, resulted in the decline of several large native species, including several ciscoes Coregonus spp., lake trout Salvelinus namaycush, and walleye Sander vitreus, among others. Consequently, there was a collapse in the commercial fisheries during the 1940s and 1950s in many parts of the Great Lakes, particularly in lakes Huron and Michigan, and in eastern Lake Superior (e.g., Lawrie 1970; Scott and Crossman 1973; Christie 1974; Lee et al. 1980 et seq.; Smith and Tibbles 1980; Becker 1983; Emery 1985; Courtenay 1993). Lake trout catch in Lake Huron fell from 3.4 million pounds in 1937 to virtual failure in 1947. In Lake Michigan, U.S. catch fell from 5.5 million pounds in 1946 to 402 pounds in 1953. In Lake Superior, catch dropped from an average of 4.5 million pounds to 368 thousand pounds in 1961 (Scott and Crossman 1973). In freshwater, sea lampreys are also known to attack white sucker Catostomus commersoni, longnose sucker Catostomus catostomus, redhorse Moxostoma spp., yellow perch Perca flavescens, rainbow trout Oncorhynchus mykiss, burbot Lota lota, channel catfish Ictalurus punctatus, northern pike Esox lucius, and common carp Cyprinus carpio (Scott and Crossman 1973). Sea lamprey predation, in combination with other factors (i.e., overfishing and hybridization with more common cisco species), led to the extinction of three endemics in the Great Lakes; the longjaw cisco Coregonus alpenae, the deepwater cisco C. johannae, and the blackfin cisco C. nigripinnis (Miller et al. 1989). During the late 1940s, the alewife Alosa pseudoharengus invaded the Great Lakes from the Atlantic Ocean. Because the sea lamprey had greatly reduced the population of large predators, alewife populations exploded and were followed by tremendous die-offs, resulting in additional changes to fish species composition in the lakes (Smith and Tibbles 1980). Sea lampreys also took a toll on the introduced salmon in the Great Lakes, much to the dismay of anglers and state fish agencies. Although the number of sea lamprey in the Great Lakes has been reduced, they still kill substantial numbers of lake trout in some areas and thus are impeding the rebuilding of established populations (Schneider et al. 1996, and references therein).

Remarks: Early methods to control this species included mechanical weirs and electrical barriers (Scott and Crossman 1973; Smith and Tibbles 1980). Beginning in the late 1950s, sea lampreys began to be successfully controlled by use of the lampricide 3-trifluoromethyl-4-nitrophenol (TFM), a chemical agent that kills larval lampreys in their stream habitats (Smith and Tibbles 1980). The lampricide has reduced the population by over 90% of the 1961 peak (Scott and Crossman 1973). As a result, commercial fisheries reportedly have shown some recovery (Smith 1985; Page and Laird 1993) and the sea lamprey's impact on native fishes has been reduced (Page and Laird 1993). However, continued use of TFM is apparently required to keep sea lamprey populations under control (Scott and Crossman 1973; Becker 1983). TFM is sometimes harmful to other fish (e.g., walleye) (Becker 1983), as well as to the larvae of nonparasitic lamprey species.

Results of an international symposium on the sea lamprey were published in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences in 1980. The demise of lake trout led to development of the splake, a hybrid between lake trout and brook trout. It was hoped that the hybrid would better avoid lampreys and mature faster, hence spawn at least once before becoming parasitized (Scott and Crossman 1973).

As of 1991, it was estimated that the U.S. and Canada were spending $8 million per year on lamprey control and another $12 million per year on lake trout restoration (Newman 1991). The sea lamprey is one of the most important invasive species in the Great Lakes. Although perhaps the first invader to the Great Lakes, having migrated out of Lake Ontario in the 1830s and into the other Great Lakes through the Welland Canal, it was not until the 1950s that impacts on fisheries were so great as to prompt serious management efforts. It was then that the Great Lakes Fisheries Investigations, the progenitor of the present day USGS Great Lakes Science Center in Ann Arbor was charged with discovering a lampricide targeting the larval stage. The Great Lakes Fisheries Commission was also formed at this time, an organization primarily concerned with sea lamprey management. Successful application of lampricide ensued, reducing the lamprey population dramatically. However, decimation by sea lamprey of predatory fish representing the top trophic levels of the Great Lakes food web had already caused another invader, the alewife, to proliferate. The alewife population exploded, causing fish kills that washed up on shore. Thus the sea lamprey created the need to control alewife. Due also tothe decimation of native predatory fish populations by sea lamprey, a Great Lakes sport fishery was created with the stocking of Chinook salmon in the 1960s.

There is currently a debate as to whether the sea lamprey are indigenous to Lake Ontario.  Randy L. Eshenroder summarized the argument for and against this belief (Eshenroder, 2009, 2014).  Analysis of mitochondrial DNA by Waldman et al. (2004, 2006) seem to show that sea lamprey is native to Lake Ontario and Lake Champlain. This hypothesis is contrary to the commonly held belief by Smith (1971) that the sea lamprey entered the lake by hitchhiking under boats after the construction of the Erie Canal in the 1820's. Smith proposes that the sea lampreys entered the Hudson River, went through the Erie Canal, entered the Oneida Lake, then entered the finger lakes and Lake Ontario.  Waldman disagrees with Smith and maintains that the reason the sea lamprey was not seen before the canal was built is that it was rare due to cold water and lack of suitable habitat. He suggests that the population boomed after the canal was built because the environmental degradation associated with human settlement created a more hospitable habitat for the sea lamprey. There is much debate about the many haplotype differences seen between the Atlantic and Lake Ontario populations.  Waldman believes that the presence of unique haplotypes in the lake (haplotypes B amd P) could not have developed in the short time between the opening of the Erie Canal and present time supporting the argument for nativity.  Others suggest that the unique haplotypes observed could have simply gone extinct in the Atlantic or that more sampling needs to be done to find them. It is also possible that the sea lamprey could have invaded the lake more than once. 

Waldman et al. (2009) wrote a comment in response to the issues raised above by Eshenroder (2009).  Waldman did further genetic analysis on the Atlantic populations of sea lampreys and still maintains that the unique alleles found in Lake Ontario, but absent in the Atlantic coast collections, would have taken between 15,000 and 31,000 year to develop.  He also refutes the hitchhiking under boats hypothesis by citing the difficult path the migrating lampreys would have had to follow including shallow pools, stagnant water, and complicated canal locks.  Waldman also raises the issue that the "hitchhiking" behavior is actually a feeding behavior which is not exhibited in migrating lampreys - such as those entering the Hudson River.  The lampreys would also be migrating in response to pheromonal signals sent from conspecifics upstream.  These pheromones would be lacking in the Hudson River unless there was a population of sea lamprey already in the area.  Eshenroder (2014) argues that P. marinus first entered Lake Ontario during a watershed breach between the Susquehanna River (in which lamprey are native) and Lake Ontario in 1863.  The debate is yet unresolved.

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FishBase Summary

Author: Fuller, P., L. Nico, E. Maynard, J. Larson, A. Fusaro, and A.K. Bogdanoff

Revision Date: 12/18/2020

Peer Review Date: 8/25/2015

Citation Information:
Fuller, P., L. Nico, E. Maynard, J. Larson, A. Fusaro, and A.K. Bogdanoff, 2024, Petromyzon marinus Linnaeus, 1758: U.S. Geological Survey, Nonindigenous Aquatic Species Database, Gainesville, FL, https://nas.er.usgs.gov/queries/factsheet.aspx?SpeciesID=836, Revision Date: 12/18/2020, Peer Review Date: 8/25/2015, Access Date: 5/21/2024

This information is preliminary or provisional and is subject to revision. It is being provided to meet the need for timely best science. The information has not received final approval by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and is provided on the condition that neither the USGS nor the U.S. Government shall be held liable for any damages resulting from the authorized or unauthorized use of the information.


The data represented on this site vary in accuracy, scale, completeness, extent of coverage and origin. It is the user's responsibility to use these data consistent with their intended purpose and within stated limitations. We highly recommend reviewing metadata files prior to interpreting these data.

Citation information: U.S. Geological Survey. [2024]. Nonindigenous Aquatic Species Database. Gainesville, Florida. Accessed [5/21/2024].

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