Although it was declared extinct in September of 1983, the blue pike has not disappeared from the minds of anglers. Rumors that the fish still exist in small lakes in Canada and elsewhere refused to die. Yet there could be no proof because scientists lacked a good sample of blue pike DNA, which is necessary to prove that any particular fish is a true blue pike and not simply a variation of the common walleye.
The blue pike was once an important part of the ecosystem of Lake Erie and a significant catch for the commercial fishing industry. One of the few fish in Lake Erie to spawn in deep water, the blue pike preferred the clearer portion of the lake (primarily the eastern two-thirds) and chose deeper, colder water than the walleye. It was quite successful, providing an annual commercial catch that often exceeded 20 million pounds (an estimated $150 million today).
Apparently the blue pike was unable to tolerate the pollution of Lake Erie. (Habitat changes and overfishing may have contributed as well.) The most recent successful spawning occurred in 1954, and the fishery collapsed entirely within three years.
It is possible that a few blue pikes were transferred to smaller lakes, where they never completely died out. Without the crucial DNA from a real blue pike, scientists were unable to determine if reported fish were really blue pike. Fortunately, an angler named Jim Anthony has been keeping a fish in his freezer for the past 37 years--a fish that he strongly believes is an actual blue pike.
Anthony's fish does have usable DNA, so the next step will be determining if the blue pike and the walleye are very closely related. If they are, they have probably interbred to such an extent that distinct blue pikes no longer exist. If they are not closely related, the search will begin for living blue pikes, which have been reported in Ontario, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee.
Perhaps living specimens could be bred and reintroduced to Lake Erie, but some fisheries managers and fish and wildlife agencies are concerned about interbreeding with walleye or destructive competition with them.
"We would love to have them back, but we want the original ones, and that's the key," said Roger Knight, supervisor of the Sandusky Fish Research Unit of the Ohio Division of Wildlife. "You can build false hopes and there may be pressure to stock blue fish in Lake Erie, even if we're not sure they are the original blue pike. We're not about to introduce another strain of walleye into our lakes where our walleye are doing fine." (As quoted in the New York Times, March 15, 1999.)
Scientists hope to announce whether or not the DNA from the frozen fish is distinct from walleye DNA this May.
Sources: Pam Belluck, "In Angler's Freezer Since '62, Fish May Refute 'Extinction'," New York Times, March 15, 1999. Paul Schiff, "Blue Pike," Twine Line, October 1986.