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Fishery experts strive to crack color mystery

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LAKE EUFAULA, Okla. (AP) _ The discovery of bright, reddish-purple eggs in young catfish caught last month in Lake Eufaula in the Deep Fork and North Canadian arms has stumped wildlife experts.

State and federal officials say they've never seen anything like it. And from what they have learned after inquiries were dispatched nationwide, nobody else has either.

The mystery has spawned curiosity and concern.

The curious are digging through research material looking for clues that might help explain why and how this oddity occurred. The concerned are conducting tests on the fish in which the unusual eggs were found, trying to rule out the possibility of an environmental threat.

``I first heard about this phenomenon about two weeks ago,'' said Garland Wright, regional fishery supervisor for the central region of the Oklahoma Wildlife Department.

``It's strange to see these reddish-purple eggs'' instead of the bright yellow eggs normally found, Wright said.

The phenomenon has only been observed in young, female bluecats, almost all of which were caught in the Deep Fork Creek arm of the lake near Fountainhead State Park. Wright said some Kansas fishermen reported finding some of the reddish-purple eggs in fish caught near No Name Creek on the North Canadian arm of the lake.

The eggs were first reported by Rochelle Miller of Checotah. Miller, a biology major at Northeastern State University, said her boyfriend, James Mosley, showed her some of the eggs he found inside a catfish he and some friends caught during the first week of May on trotlines.

``They were fluorescent purple,'' Miller said of the eggs. ``I thought he was joking, and we threw those out.''

But Miller's interest grew greater with the discovery of each new fish they found filled with the oddly colored eggs.

``There was no outward appearance that would lead you to believe there was something wrong with the fish,'' Miller said. ``But when you cut them open you could tell immediately.''

Miller said she is concerned about what impact, if any, this abnormality might have on the future of Lake Eufaula's fisheries, a question to which nobody seems to have an answer.

Both Miller and Wright say unraveling this mystery has been difficult because of the void of information.

Miller said her research on the topic, which she hopes to explore in-depth while earning her biology degree, has turned up few clues. Wright said his inquiries sent to colleagues across the nation have resulted with more questions.

``This does not mean it (egg discoloration) never has happened before,'' Wright said. ``We just don't know if it ever has.''

Wright said his efforts to solve this mystery have been hampered because the only eggs he has seen had been frozen. Based upon what he has seen, Wright said he suspects the discoloration was caused by reabsorption of undeposited eggs back into the body of fish.

``That's just a theory that might explain what we have found,'' Wright said. ``That's where we are right now unless we get some fresh eggs.''

But the chance of finding fresh eggs is getting slimmer because the spawning season for bluecats is winding down.

Wright said he and others from the Wildlife Department recently spent three days ``shocking up'' fish in areas of Lake Eufaula known to have produced fish with the strange eggs. He said several fish were examined, but none of the specimens produced the reddish-purple eggs.

Efforts to solve this mystery, however, haven't been halted. Wright said fish in which the eggs were found were sent last week to the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality to be tested for possible contamination by pesticides or heavy metals.

Wright said he doesn't suspect contamination is the culprit: ``We just want to rule out that possibility.''

With regard to public safety and any precautions about eating the fish with the mysterious eggs, Wright declined to make a recommendation.

``I cannot tell you if they would be safe to eat,'' Wright said, stopping short of saying the fish are unsafe.

Monty Elder, a spokeswoman for the Department of Environmental Quality, said it could take some time before any results are available.

``The tests the Wildlife Department is requesting are not the kind of tests we regularly conduct,'' Elder said. ``But we're going to be working with the Department of Wildlife to determine what kind of testing is necessary and what we can do to get that done.''
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