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Original Issue

A dreamy new era for fish

Experiments with LSD-25 and other hallucinogenic drugs indicate it may be possible to spook trash fish up—and out—of angling waters

There are any number of wives who believe that fishing and mental illness go hand in hand, and now it turns out that, in a manner of speaking, they are right. Howard Loeb, senior aquatic biologist at the New York State Conservation Department Fish Laboratory in Livingston Manor, is feeding fish LSD-25 and other hallucinogenic drugs ordinarily used in treatment of the mentally disturbed, and if the experiments work out successfully—which they show promise of doing—their application will have a wholly revolutionary effect not only on angling but on commercial fishing as well.

An imaginative ex-paratrooper who has been in fish biology for 16 of his 42 years, Loeb often comes up with the unusual, working on what he calls "the fun stuff—the thing that nobody knows anything about." He devised the electric pond-shocker that conservation workers use to obtain fish samples. He has worked on selective poison baits for carp, a trash fish that has ruined many game-fish waters in New York and other states, and is assisting an associate. Bill Kelly, in working on long-lasting dyes for marking trout. Several years ago Dr. Harold A. Abramson, Director of Psychiatric Research at South Oaks Psychiatric Hospital in Amityville, N.Y., chanced to read of Loeb's work on carp poisons, and he offered a suggestion: use LSD-25, a hallucinogenic drug derived from d-lysergic acid, originally found in the ergot fungus that grows on rye. Discovered by a Swiss pharmaceutical firm nearly two decades ago and later patented, LSD-25 is a potent tool in mental-illness research. It enables patients to recall events that occurred in very early childhood and that may be at the root of their difficulties. The drug is perhaps best known to the general public because of the psychological effects it brings about. Colors take on great depth, music is physically felt rather than heard and happiness or frustration is often extreme. It produces in a normal person a state believed to be similar to schizophrenia.

That is why Dr. Abramson started experimenting with LSD. He is one of the supporters of the theory that schizophrenia is caused by a chemical imbalance in the body. If he could use LSD or another derivative of d-lysergic acid on a laboratory animal to bring about simulated schizophrenia, then find another chemical agent that could block this simulated case, he would have a strong clue to the mechanism involved in clinical schizophrenia.

The laboratory animal that Dr. Abramson chose was the Siamese fighting fish. It was plentiful, cheap, almost as sensitive to LSD as humans, and could, of course, be closely confined. When Dr. Abramson released the drug into tank water, the Siamese fighting fish surfaced and appeared as if in a stupor. Depending on the dosage, the fish stayed this way for hours, sometimes days, before resuming normal behavior.

For Loeb, who has far more ample lab facilities for testing fish than Dr. Abramson does, these initial tests were exciting. The poison baits used on carp had proved to be only partly successful, but if LSD could work on carp and other fish, the opportunities were unlimited for conservation authorities and sportsmen. For example, a pond loaded with carp poses problems. If any of the standard chemicals, such as rotenone, are used, all the fish, both carp and game fish, usually die, aquatic insects suffer and the poison sometimes lingers for months, preventing the restocking of game fish. But if a chemical could cause all the fish to surface for several hours without killing them, then the undesirable fish could be picked out and the game fish left to prosper. Again, a surfacing chemical would enable biologists to take a highly accurate fish census of a body of water without harming a fin. A low-flying plane could photograph a treated body of water, and biologists, interpreting the pictures, could get a count of species and populations.

Loeb first began testing with LSD-25, then, with the help of an American pharmaceutical house, Eli Lilly and Co. of Indianapolis, started testing other compounds made from d-lysergic acid. So far Loeb has tested some 40 drugs supplied by Lilly on carp, goldfish, golden and common shiners, blacknose dace, yellow perch, pumpkinseed sun-fish, white suckers, bullheads, brook trout and brown trout. With the exception of the trout and the bullheads—which swim to the surface—the fish pop up to the top of the water, swim backward and often go into a stupor. Goodness knows what kinds of hallucinations carp have—perhaps they dream they are gefilte fish—but they become noticeably lighter in color. Transferred to a fresh tank, affected fish appear intoxicated up to several hours, then become darker in color and start to respond by sight to people and approaching nets. Left in the original test tank, the fish snap to after several days. "My idea in experimenting with these drugs," says Loeb, "is to find out which ones bring the fish up the best with a modest dose and then become nontoxic the quickest." Loeb already has discovered that he can tell if test water is still affected by putting it under ultraviolet light. If the water shows blue it is usually toxic.

Much work, of course, remains to be done. The drugs have to be tested on aquatic vegetation, insects and, ultimately, man. It is now impossible to use any of the compounds in the field, because no one knows what would happen to a person who happened to swim in or drink from a treated pond or lake. But the tests are most encouraging and the possibilities unlimited, both for sport and commercial fishing. "What I actually envision is the chemical harvesting of commercial fish," says Loeb. "It's coming. We're going to bring the fish out of the lakes and oceans at our level. Fishing today is still in the hunting stage. Even though the Russians have huge factory ships with radar and all sorts of gear, they are not as efficient as they could be. That still is hunting—and what we want is fish farming. I can see the day," Loeb says with a smile, "when you back your freezer truck up to the dock and the fish just march right out of the water and fillet themselves."

"Loeb," says Dr. Abramson, who marvels at the progress, "is doing real pioneering. He has the foresight to explore the unknown. He's doing important work in experimental biology, and I wouldn't be surprised if in studying fish he came up with a contribution of definite value for our work on mental illness."