Time may be running out for Santa Barbara’s lamprey fish population, but conservationists are fighting to give them another chance at survival.

Eleven conservation groups in California, Oregon and Washington sent a petition to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service on Jan. 28 to list four species of lamprey as threatened or endangered under the Federal Endangered Species Act. The conservationists are seeking protection of lamprey habitats and prohibitions on any private or commercial activity that would adversely affect the lamprey population.

The lamprey, an ancient, eel-shaped jawless fish, inhabits both ocean and freshwater environments across the Pacific coast. Lamprey make their living as external parasites that attach themselves to fish and feed on blood and other bodily fluids. Concerns for the increasing scarcity of lampreys grew during the early 1990s, as sightings of lamprey declined noticeably. Counts of the lamprey at Winchester Dam in Oregon declined from 46,785 in 1966 to less than 50 annually since 1995.

Conservationist Jeff Miller says human mistreatment of the environment is to blame, attributing the depopulation to “water development, poor agricultural and forestland management practices, and rapid urbanization.”

Rich Nawa, ecologist and author of the petition, said the lamprey’s drop in numbers could affect its ecological niche, and subsequently other species as well.

“Adult Pacific lamprey function as a buffer to reduce predation on adult salmon by seals, sea lions and other fish that otherwise might prey more heavily on the salmon,” Nawa said. “Lampreys also play an important ecological role in transporting nutrients such as nitrogen to freshwater ecosystems.”

Conservationists say the lamprey’s absence from the food chain would have repercussions on the entire marine ecosystem because many predators that consume lampreys would eat salmon instead, already an endangered species. This would cause the food chain to collapse, perhaps irreparably.

Milton Love, a researcher at the UCSB Marine Science Institute, said he questions such assumptions but recognizes the importance of protecting the species.

“To try to extrapolate what will actually happen is a dangerous thing,” Love said. “Still, no species of any kind should go to extinction.”

Conservationists are petitioning to protect the Pacific lamprey, western brook lamprey, Kern brook lamprey and river lamprey. The petition is part of a process that includes adding the species of lamprey to the endangered species list and allocating government and private resources to restore habitat and population of lamprey species.

“It could take years,” Dave Hogan of the Center for Biological Diversity said. “The [schedule] for joining the endangered species list is two years, and the timeline for the recovery of the species will be much longer.”

Still, Hogan said he and his fellow conservationists will use any means necessary to get the lamprey listed.

“The [bureaucracy] at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will delay a lamprey listing,” he said, “but ultimately we will prevail in establishing protection for the species, even if we must go to court.”