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Not just museums, aquariums work on medicines and sushi supplies

August 7, 1997

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Once an aquarium was just the place to take a child on a rainy Sunday because the dusty museum last week had bored him into a tantrum.

These days, though, while attracting hordes of visitors, aquariums also work on research projects such as producing a new, powerful painkiller and getting bluefin tuna to report their travels via satellite, to help keep up the supply of sushi.

The National Aquarium in Baltimore draws thousands of kids and adults every summer day. They shriek at the sharks and marvel at the brilliant blue poison-dart frog.

In his hot lab behind the tanks, Jack Cover, curator of exhibits from Latin American rain forests, cares for 24 species of tropical frogs. One may lead to the development of a new and powerful painkiller.

``He’s called the phantasm frog because he’s hard to see, but I can hear him singing,″ Cover said over multiple croaks.

Alkaloids from the poison in the skin of such frogs, which some South American Indians use to poison their darts, have been studied for years by Dr. John Daly at the National Institutes of Health. One has been developed into a compound called epibatidine.

``It could be 200 times as effective as morphine _ and not addictive _ if they can get the toxicity out of it,″ Cover said. A drug company currently is trying to develop it, but has years more research to go.

Later this month, Cover leaves for a patch of rain forest in southern Suriname, near the border of Brazil, looking for more frogs.

Across the country at the Monterrey Bay Aquarium in California, scientists are looking at the first data from a new kind of tag attached to bluefin tuna. Of the 37 tags, 36 detached themselves from the fish according to schedule and floated to the ocean’s surface from March through July.

There, small solar batteries attached to the tags provided the power so they could ``phone home,″ by satellite. Those calls gave scientists the location of the tag and the temperature of the water.

Janet Basu of Stanford University, which is working with the aquarium, said the information was being analyzed with the help of the National Marine Fisheries in Miami. It should show whether bluefins tagged off Cape Hatteras, N.C., last winter cruised toward the Arctic or the Mediterranean in the spring.

The results will affect quotas of bluefins that fishing fleets are allowed to catch. That’s important to Japanese dealers on the east coast of this country. They put tuna on planes for Tokyo, where a single giant blue fin _ some weigh over 1,500 pounds _ has fetched as much as $80,000.

``When they chop it up for sashimi it could be worth about $270,000,″ said Carlo Safina of the National Audubon Society.

It’s also important to Safina and other conservationists, who worry that the tuna are being overfished.

In Boston, the New England Aquarium is working on another conservation project, the porpoise pinger. It makes a noise to scare porpoises away from fishermen’s nets.

Federal law will require fishermen to reduce their accidental catch of the seagoing mammals to nearly zero over the next few years, said Scott Kraus, the aquarium’s research director,

Cod and pollack nets in the Gulf of Maine have been unintentionally taking 2,000 harbor porpoises a year. Tests of the pinger have succeeded in driving off nine out of 10, Kraus said, but there are many other kinds of porpoises and they don’t all hear the same range of sound. So, his research continues.

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