Sea Lamprey


Scientific Name: Petromyzon marinus

Classification: Nongame Fish

Abundance: Common (green area)

long eel-looking fish

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Sea Lamprey (Photo: NCWRC)

Sea Lamprey-teeth (Photo: NCWRC)

American shad with lamprey attached (Photo: NCWRC)

Additional Information

Sea lamprey have eel-like bodies with two widely separated dorsal fins. Their mouths are wide oral discs with several rows of sharp teeth which are used to feed on their hosts during the parasitic stage of their adult lives. Adults are brown with darker blotches on the body and the head has 7 gill openings on each side. Sea lamprey can range from 5 to 47 inches long. 

Sea lamprey live in the Atlantic Ocean from Canada to Florida. In North Carolina, they can move inland in freshwater streams and rivers on the coast, including the Roanoke, Tar, Neuse, Cape Fear, and Pee Dee Rivers.

Sea lamprey live in the Atlantic Ocean as parasitic adults but return to spawn in the freshwater streams of their birth. The young burrow into the soft substrates on the bottom of streams, feeding on algae until they are juveniles, ready to return to the sea.

The larval form of the sea lamprey, known as an ammocoete, is born in freshwater habitats, and burrow into silt and sand substrate. Once it becomes a juvenile, it migrates down to oceanic or estuary habitats. It remains in this marine habitat for up to two years, before returning to a river or stream to spawn (making it an anadromous species) its own offspring. As an adult, the sea lamprey undergoes a parasitic stage, where it attaches to and feeds on several types of fish, such as shark, menhaden, shad, trout, pickerel, catfish, and mackerel.