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The Key to Extinction is Next to the Frozen Burritos

No dinosaurs here, but I thought a story about DNA analysis and
extinct species may be of general interest.

Oh, and the story's really, really odd.

                      *  *  *

In Angler's Freezer Since '62, Fish May Refute 'Extinction'

CONNEAUT, Ohio -- Call it nostalgia. Or sentimentality. Or call it an
uncanny prescience. 

Jim Anthony himself is not exactly sure why he kept a certain fish in
his freezer for 37 years, carefully rewrapping it every so often and
making sure that his wife did not let it thaw when she defrosted the

Somehow, Anthony, a 63-year-old barber in this working-class town on
the shores of Lake Erie, had a feeling when he caught the fish, a blue
pike, back in 1962, that someday somebody might be interested. 

"I kept telling my wife it was more valuable as time went on and
that's why we needed to keep it," Anthony said. "It's hard for me to
explain, but that blue pike meant a lot to me." 

All of a sudden, nearly four decades later, Jim Anthony's blue pike
means a lot to other people, too. It has become the central clue in a
compelling scientific detective story that some scientists are hoping
will lead to an extraordinary result: the return of an extinct species. 

Blue pike, native only to Lake Erie, were once so ubiquitous there
that they spurred a booming commercial fishing industry in the 1930s
and 1940s, catering to demand for the mild, meaty taste of the bright
blue fish. But in 1975, blue pike were declared extinct, a casualty,
scientists say, of pollution, overfishing and habitat changes. 

Since then, fishermen have occasionally reported seeing what looked
like blue pike in smaller lakes in Canada and elsewhere. Some
Lazarus-like resurrection? More plausible was the theory that during
the blue-pike heyday, people transferred small batches of fish from
Lake Erie to smaller lakes and they never died out. 

Still, fish biologists generally assumed that those blue fish were
really a type of walleye, a common fish in Lake Erie, and not the true
blue pike. But they could not be sure. They could find no specimens of
blue pike preserved in such a way that DNA could be extracted and
compared with the DNA of other fish. 

And they were intrigued. 

"If we could find and verify the survival of the blue pike, then we
could restock them in Lake Erie," said Dieter Busch, a fishery
biologist who helped spearhead the research as chief of the Lower
Great Lakes Program of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 

Busch said the blue pike had been sorely missed, both for
environmental reasons (it filled an ecological niche as one of the few
Lake Erie fish to spawn in deep water) and for economic reasons (he
estimates that blue pike at their previous levels would add more than
$150 million to the lake's fishing industry). 

"The species was such a valuable species," Busch said, "it was worth
getting an answer." 

Research was going slowly. Scientists had blue pike from museums, but
they were preserved in formaldehyde, which makes DNA hard to extract.
Scientists also had scales from blue pike used in unrelated earlier
studies, but that DNA was disappointing, too. 

Fortunately for science, Anthony, while snipping hair, chatted to
customers about "the blue-pike generation." That was the golden age of
blue pike, when Anthony's father sold piles of them from his fish
markets in Conneaut (pronounced KAHN-yaht) and popularized the "fish
sandwich without bones." After school, Jim pulled on rubber boots and
got down to scaling and cleaning fish. 

Anthony, a burly, self-effacing man who worked as a fisherman for his
father until the blue-pike population started to dwindle in 1957, told
his barbershop customers about the 15-inch blue pike he caught with a
simple hook, line and night crawler in 1962. 

Even then, he knew the fish was rare, and he kept it alive in a bucket
while contacting state wildlife agencies. He offered them the fish but
they declined. One agency suggested he release it into the lake, and
he tried, but it was already too weak and died. 

Anthony's wife, Mary Lynn, accepted the fish-preservation routine
graciously, realizing that it was important to her husband. Sometimes
while defrosting the freezer, she either moved the fish to another
freezer or piled frozen foods on top of it. 

"All my customers knew I had a blue pike in my freezer," Anthony said
in his white ranch house not far from the great lake. "They thought I
was nuts." 

One day last year a customer brought him a local newspaper article
about scientists trying to determine whether any blue pike still
existed. Anthony called one of the scientists, Carol Stepien, an
ichthyologist, or fish zoologist, at Case Western Reserve University
in Cleveland and offered his fish. 

"It don't look bad for 30-something years in the freezer," Anthony
said. "Except for a little freezer burn." 

Dr. Stepien was more concerned with what was inside. 

As it turned out, "It has great DNA," she said. The research "would be
very difficult without his fish." 

Dr. Stepien's crew is proceeding systematically, first trying to
determine whether the original blue pike is in fact a separate species
from the walleye. If the two fish are too closely related, then the
walleye might have interbred with the last of the blue pike, making it
unlikely that any original blue pike still exist. 

Dr. Stepien says she will not disclose her conclusion until a
scientific conference in May. Busch, however, who now works for the
Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, is bolder. 

"We are confident that blue pike are a separate species," he said. 

The next step, Busch said, is searching for "suspect blue pike" in
various lakes (so far, there have been rumors of blue pike in Ontario,
Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Tennessee). Fishermen have sent putative
blue pike to Dr. Stepien and to the Fish and Wildlife Service, but the
DNA of those fish will not be tested until the first phase of the
project is complete. 

Busch even has a fish that someone sent him eight years ago, which he
says has telltale blue-pikeness: a pointy nose, large eyes and smaller
size than a walleye. 

"When I unwrapped it, my stomach jumped," Busch said. "I have seen
hundreds of walleye and this was different." 

If the scientists find living blue pike, they will focus on ways to
reintroduce them to Lake Erie. The lake is cleaner now, but there
would have to be an adequate food supply -- the lake herring that blue
pike ate tapered off decades ago and Busch said they might have to
restock that, too. 

All of this is somewhat controversial with some fishery managers and
the fish and wildlife agencies in the states with a border on Lake
Erie: Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York. They are concerned that before
any fish are reintroduced, there should be solid proof not only that
the fish are blue pike but that they will not interbreed with walleye
or invade the walleye's habitat. 

"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." 

Anthony knows the investigation could take years, but he is hopeful it
will show that the fish of his childhood is still around somewhere. 

He winces to recall the waning years of the blue pike, when the fish
his father's workers caught contained no eggs, or eggs that were

After he caught his blue pike in 1962, the year after his father died,
he tried to conjure up ways to keep the breed from disappearing. 

"Every time I'd meet a politician, I'd say 'Just get me permission to
set a net and catch some blue pike and try spawning them in holding
tanks,"' said Anthony, who could no longer set nets, because he had
given up his commercial fishing license. Later, Lake Erie commercial
fishing was banned for a while because of mercury. 

"Maybe they didn't think blue pike was really going to die out,"
Anthony said, "but I couldn't understand why they weren't doing
anything about it." 

Since he bequeathed his frozen blue pike, Anthony has visited Dr.
Stepien's lab a couple of times. 

"It might sound corny, but I had a lot of feeling in that fish -- it's
a part of my life," he said. "Now, they call it the Anthony fish. I
like that." 

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