CLEVELAND (AP) - The legend of the extinct blue pike just got fishier -- it may have actually been a walleye.
Researchers say they can't tell a genetic difference between the blue pike and the common Lake Erie walleye, damaging hopes that the fish was a unique species and could somehow be restocked.
A lab report obtained by The Plain Dealer shows that federal researchers found the DNA of a dozen blue pike specimens from museums "suggest little, if any, genetic differentiation exists between individuals of suspect blue pike and walleye." The report adds that the data suggests that the blue pike is not a "distinct evolutionary unit from walleye."
Blue pike were prized for their taste and people pulled them from Lake Erie in massive numbers. Records show that commercial fisherman caught more than 3 million pounds in 1885. Between 1950 and 1957, that number rose to 26 million pounds. By 1964, the total was fewer than 200 pounds and the United States and Canada eventually declared the blue pike extinct.
Another biologist studying the blue pike, Carol Stepien, head of the Great Lakes Environmental Genetics Laboratory at Cleveland State University, said she has come across the same conclusion in her genetic testing.
"There are all kinds of different colors of walleye, but they're no different," Stepien said. "I just haven't seen any important differences genetically between blue pike and walleye."
The report will be presented Monday in Madison, Wis., by U.S. Geological Survey geneticist Cheryl Morrison. Morrison will speak at a meeting of experts from 30 nations who will discuss the status of fish in the Great Lakes.
Morrison said researchers were surprised by the answer they found.
"We didn't see anything different," Morrison said. "Some people just won't like this answer. They would prefer that it is a distinct subspecies that could somehow be brought back."
Some scientists and sportsmen's groups hoped that blue pike could be found and restored in the lake. The original goal of the study was to find ways of making management decisions if the fish were rediscovered.
At a 1999 meeting, Stepien presented a report on blue-colored walleye caught in Canadian waters that had the same DNA as Lake Erie walleye, meaning they weren't blue pike.
"I'm not sure there is such a thing as a true blue pike," Stepien said. "I would say it's more like a color that you got in deeper areas of the lake that occurred naturally. It's like having a brown puppy or a white puppy or a yellow puppy. All the puppies are the same except for the color."
Gary Isbell, head of Ohio's fisheries research and management programs, said it's time for fishermen and scientists to move on.
"We've got serious issues on Lake Erie with other species," Isbell said. "The blue pike are gone. It's time to get over it."