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Maybe extinction isn't forever.

Maybe something can be brought back from the dead.

Lake Erie biologists may be on the verge of doing just that, as an effort -- part science and part detective story -- unfolds in Amherst.

And Western New Yorkers could get a real bonus in the potential return of a vanished species that once was everyone's Friday night fish fry, a lip-smacking staple just a generation ago.

The blue pike, U.S. Fish and Wildlife experts are beginning to believe, might not have gone the way of the dodo after all.

Officially declared extinct in 1975, the fish that once accounted for the lion's share of commercial catches in Lake Erie has become the focus of intense analysis and increased speculation that some stocks of the species may survive in northern Canadian lakes.

"That is not far-fetched," insisted Dieter Busch, head of the service's Amherst-based Lower Great Lakes Fishery Resources Office.

"I would say it's a much better chance than buying a lottery ticket," he added. "Overall, given the behavior of society in the '30s, '40s and '50s, when they moved fish around a lot, it's quite probable."

If blue pike can be identified positively, cultivated and restocked in Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, it could provide a huge boon for both sport and commercial fishing.

No fish has yet moved into the ecological niche once occupied by the blues, which are smaller -- and old-timers say tastier -- than the popular yellow pike, or walleye.

"The blue pike is a cousin to the walleye, as is the sauger," Busch said. "They're all part of the perch family."

Walleye have become one of the most popular sport fish in this end of the lake, but only by default. The species prefers the warmer, shallower waters of the western end of the lake and not the deep cold waters of the eastern basin. The smaller blues used to fill the nets of fishermen before a marked decline blamed on overfishing, habitat destruction and pollution.

Busch was among the fisheries biologists working on "dead" Lake Erie in the 1960s, when the Endangered Species Act was passed. The focus then was on walleye stocks, he recalls. Although scientists prepared a "blue pike recovery plan," they couldn't find any fish to apply it to.

A few grayish walleye went into a holding tank in Dunkirk and then on to university analysis in Ohio, but they weren't positively identified as blue pike.

"The best we could do was declare them 'blue pike suspects,' " Busch said.

Blues were declared dead, disappearing from Lake Erie, Lake Ontario and the Niagara River as major biological changes swept the polluted Great Lakes.

A ban on phosphorus-based detergents helped revive the lakes, and ocean salmon were stocked to replace depleted native species. Local anglers have been hoping to develop a walleye fishery here that rivals the abundance of the western basin.

That's not likely, Busch and other biologists believe. While the lake now has some walleye that "don't act like walleye" and dive deep like the blues once did in pursuit of smelt, the population now seems stable -- a hint that it has reached the "carrying capacity" of this basin.

For that reason, many biologists have opposed pleas for a walleye hatchery at Dunkirk, and Busch thinks a blue pike hatchery there might make much more sense.

First, though, they have to find some verified, true-blue blue pike. That's where the detective work comes in.

In the 1960s, biologists had assumed blues and yellows were pretty much alike, and that maybe the blue was only a different color phase of the yellow. But Busch found a 1940s report from the University of Rochester -- still the best study of blues -- that indicated
the smaller pike was a cold-water species like the lake trout, not a lover of the shallows like the walleyes.

Then there were the tales told by fishermen, and even the Canadian fishing camp brochures that promised "both yellows and blues!" Busch began to wonder whether more than color variations were at work.

Possibly, he concluded, blue pike fans trucked fish to some northern Canadian lakes for their own sport in the '30s and '40s, and some may survive.

"A lot of rumors have existed for a long period of time," Busch said. "We get maybe six to ten calls a year from people who have been to Canada asking us if these are blue pike or blue walleye."

Then a videotape surfaced, showing anglers with both blue and yellow-tinged pike from the same lake -- a clue that local conditions weren't merely producing blue walleyes, but that both species might still co-exist.

Busch put out the word that the wildlife service was interested, and soon "we were actually being inundated with samples, from skin and scales to even whole fish," he said.

Unfortunately, most still are classed as probable blue-colored walleyes -- "blue pike suspects," in biologists' terms.

Sophisticated DNA testing might hold the answers by providing genetic "fingerprints" for the species. But while getting DNA samples from modern fish is easy, few historical examples are available for comparison.

"We have pickled fish at various locations, but the formaldehyde destroys structure, so they can't be used," Busch said. "Fortunately, though, agencies have samples from the past of scales taken to determine aging -- and there would have been DNA in the mucous on the scales."

At some university labs, he added, "they're looking at dried mucous on the scales and the envelopes" to see if they can find the blue pike genetic code.

Analysis of old mounted trophy fish and of scrapbook photographs also has revealed another difference between the fish, and one that might prove useful on the scene. The deeper-diving blues have eyes that are even larger than those of the walleyes, and the service has developed drawings that can serve as a field guide.

"What would be really helpful is if the fishing public took copies of these drawings with them on their field trips to Canada," he said.

Busch isn't sure whether the strategy might produce, some day, a captured Adam and Eve blue pike couple that could be used to restore a vanished fishery.

"If there are none left, OK," he said. "If the answer is no, then at least we've laid it to rest.

"If it's yes, there will be major excitement."

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