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NFC: Blue Pike news
Blue Pike Initiative alive, even if the fish are
By BRIAN S. KINAL
After a slow start, the campaign to restore
the blue pike to Lake Erie is in overdrive, fueled by an injection of $100,000
in federal research funds. The so-called Blue Pike Initiative has consolidated
its political and scientific support, and sidestepped regional opposition and
Fishery biologist Dieter Busch, who launched the
initiative in 1997, is still leading the campaign despite moving from Buffalo,
N.Y., to Washington, D.C. He said he remains committed to the goal of restoring
a fish species that was declared extinct in 1983.
laboratory research is Tim King, Ph.D., head of the U.S. Geological Survey's
Leetown Science Center in Leetown, W.Va. In an interview this month, King said
USGS is about to launch a year-long research project headed by a doctorate-level
geneticist who will be hired to work exclusively on blue pike.
the object will be to discover DNA differences between blue pike and yellow
pike, which are still plentiful, and to use those DNA "markers" to identify blue
pike that might have survived apparent extinction.
If living blue pike
can be located, they would become the breeding stock for a new population of
blue pike in Lake Erie, Busch and his close colleagues say.
meantime, Busch said he and two fellow researchers will soon release a
scientific paper advancing a theory on a major cause of the disappearance of the
blue pike, once estimated at 50 million fish in Lake Erie. It might have been a
vitamin B1 (thiamin) deficiency, Busch said.
As he explained, blue pike
began a steep decline in the 1950s, just at a time when smelt were experiencing
a sharp increase in numbers. Blue pike fed on smelt, and smelt contain high
levels of the enzyme thiaminase, which breaks down thiamin.
has been proven to affect lake trout and Atlantic salmon, and it might have
affected blue pike as well," he said.
Co-authors of the paper are Kofi
Fynn-Aikins, Ph.D., chief of the Lower Great Lakes Fishery Resources Office in
Buffalo, and George Ketola, Ph.D., of the Tunison Laboratory of Aquatic Science
in Cortland, N.Y. The Fishery Resources Office, once headed by Busch, is a
division of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Tunison Lab is a
division of the U.S. Geological Survey.
FWS and USGS have formed a solid
alliance on blue pike after an early competition for research money. Although
the Fish and Wildlife Service started the Blue Pike Initiative, USGS normally
performs research for that agency, which has no research facilities of its
In June 1999, Fynn-Akins publicly expressed his concern about FWS
being "cut off" from the blue pike project. In the end, though, Busch himself
met with U.S. Rep. John Peterson of Pleasantville, R-5th Dist., to lobby for
research funds for King's USGS lab.
Peterson, who serves on the Interior
Appropriations Committee, was always seen as the Blue Pike Initiative's best
hope for federal research funds. U.S. Rep. Phil English of Erie, R-21st Dist.,
and U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., both lobbied for blue pike funding, but did
not serve on relevant committees.
In April of 1999, Peterson told the
Times-News he was eager to support the Blue Pike Initiative. "There was no
better eating than the blue pike," he said, recalling his childhood when
door-to-door peddlers sold blue pike in 10-gallon tins.
Busch, who now
works for the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, said he wants to make
sure FWS stays connected to the Blue Pike Initiative, and predicts it will
because of the agency's close ties to the sport fishing community and to Lake
He said he has great confidence in King. "Tim is one of the
unique researchers that is interested in results and not in blowing his own
trumpet," he said. "If anybody's going to solve this riddle, Tim's going to do
it. He's got the expertise and he's got the equipment."
The S.O.N.S. of
Lake Erie fishing and conservation group of Erie, which has been a partner in
the Blue Pike Initiative, has shifted its funding from the FWS to King's lab.
The S.O.N.S. (Save Our Native Species) hosted a luncheon in Erie after a blue
pike conference in May 1999, and announced a $5,000 grant to FWS' Fishery
Resources Office in Buffalo.
A condition of the grant was that the
Fishery Resources Office would use it as a match to attract an equal grant,
which the office was not able to do. The Fishery Resources Office returned the
$5,000, and the S.O.N.S. decided earlier this month to give it to
S.O.N.S. Vice President Ed Kissell said the S.O.N.S. will maximize
the effect of the grant by holding the money in an account in Erie, and writing
checks to cover some of King's expenses.
"Tim King will send bills for
lab supplies to the S.O.N.S., and we'll write checks that will be sent directly
to the suppliers. That way, no administrative money will be taken out of the
$5,000. It will all go toward research," Kissell said.
particularly in Pennsylvania, New York and Canada, have embraced the Blue Pike
Initiative, and responded to the call for fish that resemble blues. About 50 of
those fish, known as blue pike "suspects" or "candidates," have made their way
to a freezer at King's lab, where they await testing.
the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., have cooperated by contributing decades-old
blue pike tissue preserved in formaldehyde. Unfortunately, as King complained,
formaldehyde makes DNA hard to extract. "We're stuck with looking at short
fragments of DNA," he said.
have not been encouraging. King said he's found as many genetic differences
between varieties of yellow pike as between yellow pike and blue pike. Part of
the problem is that the research has not been extensive enough, he added. DNA
has many "regions," and more regions need to be explored, he said.
put it, "I'm painting with a roller when I need to be using a fine artist's
From all accounts, the blue pike was distinct in both appearance
and habitat from its cousin the yellow pike. However, King said, it is possible
that the blue pike, while evolving as a separate species, did not have enough
time to develop a clearly different DNA.
"It was fished out before it had
a chance to evolve," he speculated.
King said there were no fish in the
lakes at the end of the last Ice Age 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. If blue pike
were a separate species that evolved from yellow pike, even 10,000 years might
not have been enough time for blues to develop a radically distinctive DNA, he
While rallying behind King, Busch and his core supporters have
distanced themselves from a blue pike researcher in Cleveland, Ohio, with whom
they once worked. That researcher, Carol Stepien, Ph.D., of Cleveland State
University, argues that blue pike were a distinct species (a conclusion King has
not yet agreed with). But Stepien theorizes that blues, by mating with yellows,
dissipated their genetic pool.
An example of interbreeding is the fish
that Jim Anthony of Conneaut, Ohio, kept in his freezer for 37 years, and turned
over to Stepien in early 1999. Anthony always believed it was a blue pike, but
Stepien's analysis showed the fish probably had a blue pike mother and a yellow
pike or hybrid father.
If blues were reintroduced into Lake Erie, they
would again breed with yellow pike and lose their species integrity, Stepien
Stepien, formerly of Case Western Reserve University in
Cleveland, said she has ongoing blue pike research funding from Sea Grant and
the Lake Erie Protection Fund. She said she is working with Miles Coburn of John
Carroll University in Cleveland and Ted Cavender of Ohio State University in
Columbus on a study of the physical differences between blue and yellow pike.
The results could be helpful in identifying blue pike candidates, she
Ohioans have not embraced the Blue Pike Initiative, apparently
believing it might interfere with the yellow pike (walleye) fishery, which is
even more abundant in Ohio that in Pennsylvania and New York. Stepien has
attacked it on scientific grounds, saying Busch and his colleagues want to make
the research support their preconceived conclusion -- that the blue pike still
She also said there's no guarantee that blues transplanted from a
distant Canadian lake, for example, would adopt the same behavior and habitat as
the blues that once lived in Lake Erie.
"I would be against restoring
them unless you know what they'd do," Stepien said.
King, too, is
skeptical. He said even if blue pike are located, a sound stocking program would
require 200 to 300 adult fish to guarantee a viable population, as opposed to a
few fish used to produce many offspring. "Are we going to establish a species by
stocking a family or by stocking a population?" he asked.
leader of the Blue Pike Initiative, is unfazed by the skepticism.
years ago I might have agreed," he said, but added that many fish species native
to Lake Erie have rebounded from obscurity, including whitefish, burbot, and
lake herring, which were once the main forage for blue pike.
mussels have slowed the aging of the lake by filtering impurities, further
setting the stage for the resurgence of native fish, he contended.
Busch, "The lake is returning to a more natural condition -- a condition that
supported blue pike."