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NFC: Blue Pike news

Blue Pike Initiative alive, even if the fish are not

Staff writer

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 scientific skepticism.

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.

Spearheading the 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.

King said 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.

In the 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.

"Thiaminase 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 own.

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 Erie itself.

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 King.

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.

Sport fishermen, 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.

Museums, including 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.

Tough challenge
Initial results 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.

As he put it, "I'm painting with a roller when I need to be using a fine artist's brush."

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 reasoned.

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 said recently.

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 noted.

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 exists.

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.

Busch, the leader of the Blue Pike Initiative, is unfazed by the skepticism.

"Twenty 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.

Zebra mussels have slowed the aging of the lake by filtering impurities, further setting the stage for the resurgence of native fish, he contended.

Said Busch, "The lake is returning to a more natural condition -- a condition that supported blue pike."