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 scientific
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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