In a small town in Alaska there is something strange swimming in the water. Something so different, so fantastic, that it seems almost unreal. So, how did this fishy phenomenon occur? And what will become of these extraordinary creatures?
This incredible story, I actually stumbled upon myself when talking to a friend of mine who recently transferred from the Alaska DNR to the Montana DNR, started with a call from the very small fishing town of Skankpuk, Alaska. Skankpuk (population 34) is located on the Koyuk Inlet on the coast of the Bering Sea, approximately 60 miles north of Unalakleet, the nearest city and at least 100 miles from Nome, where the nearest DNR office was. Unfortunately for Nome’s DNR, this was a relatively common occurrence. Ms. Julia O’Brian, a lifetime resident of the small fishing village, was known as something of an alarmist and was reported to have called into the DNR at least five times in the past year alone on varying instances. Because of her reputation and the distance between the Nome office and Skankpuk, it was nearly a year before anyone from the DNR came down to check out her complaint. When they did, they received the surprise of their life.
In a small pond a couple of miles from Ms. O’Brian’s house on the coast, there was a small population of salmon left over from one fisherman’s unsuccessful attempt at starting a fishery. Though the plan had been long abandoned, a few of the fish had survived and adapted to pond environment. What surprised the DNR conservation officer, though, was the fact that that salmon appeared to be “glowing.” When the officer turned in his report to his superiors and was able to make them believe that he wasn’t joking with them, an investigation was launched.
After several months talking to people from the town and investigating the pond itself the gist of what the investigators discovered was this: About twenty-four years previously a couple of Soviet scientists by the names of Levi and Sarah Katayev fled their home country, taking with them all of their research on nuclear materials and settled in a small cabin just a few miles north of Skankpuk. There they hid, living a quiet, unassuming life for about ten years before they felt it safe to move on. Later records show them both dying in 1994 in the state of Indiana.
When looking into the cabin in which they lived, though, the DNR investigators were able to find evidence that the Katayevs had been continuing their experimentation on uranium and other nuclear materials, finding a secret laboratory behind the small bedroom, and stairs that led down into a small cellar which still contained the spilled remains of nuclear waste and Uranium 232 (half-life 68.9 years.)
While this certainly explained how the radiation was getting into the lakes, it didn’t explain why the fish were glowing instead of simply dying. Experts were brought in from CDC, the DNR headquarters in Alaska, and even experts on Nuclear science to study these fish. The results were even more surprising than expected: as it turned out, not only were these fish glowing, they were emitting an electrical charge of what approximated 3,000 volts per fish per day (for reference, that is approximately 5 times as much as an electric eel). This made the fish highly dangerous to all of the researchers, but all the more interesting. As one of the amazed scientists said, “This is quite possibly the greatest biological find of our time; if we can figure out how to create more of these fish and harness this energy, we could potentially power the world.”
While at this time there are no plans in the works for either harnessing the energy of the current pond of fish or attempting to replicate this brilliant mistake, it is fascinating to see how our future energy needs might be provided for not by non-renewable resources, but by biology.