Laine Welch: Opponents gear up to block FDA approval of Frankenfish

FisheriesJanuary 19, 2013 

Fishing groups, consumers and health organizations are launching a final push to keep genetically modified fish off American dinner plates.

During the holidays, the Food and Drug Administration announced its conclusion that the fish, tweaked to grow at least three times faster than normal, will not harm the human environment or wild salmon stocks. An FDA green light is the last step before AquaBounty, creator of the so-called Frankenfish, can send its fish to market. The public has until Feb. 26 to comment to the FDA.

Alaska Sens. Mark Begich and Lisa Murkowski have asked the FDA for a 60-day extension of the comment period. Senators from Washington, Oregon and Maryland backed the request. No word yet on whether it will be granted.

Meanwhile, Begich said the agency is moving "full steam ahead with fine-tuning its Frankenfish regulations." He said he isn't optimistic that public opinion can derail a federal OK.

Last year the federal government awarded a $500,000 research grant to AquaBounty after the company disclosed it could run out of cash early this year. Over the past 16 years, Aqua Bounty has spent $67 million to genetically tweak its "AquaAdvantage" Atlantic salmon and pursue permits to sell it.

Begich called FDA support of the fish "totally misguided."

"The FDA is not equipped to understand the impacts this genetically engineered fish will have on the environment and ecosystem," he said in a recent teleconference. That echoed earlier comments by Rep. Don Young and Murkowski.

As of Friday, 3,209 comments had been posted. Of 15 pages of comments, not one supported the fish. The Alaska Legislature and state fishing groups have come out strongly against the fish, as has the National Humane Society and the Center for Food Safety, among others.

"Can they move forward even with so much opposition by so many diverse groups?" Begich asked. "The sad answer to this is, probably."

According to AquaBounty documents, the company plans to grow the modified Atlantic salmon eggs at a lab on Prince Edward Island, fly them to Panama to inland fish farms and ship them back to the U.S. for sale.

But Alaska's congressional delegation hasn't given up.

"We intend to reintroduce legislation" to prevent this product from coming to market, Begich said. "We will also deal with the labeling issue and some others. So if they think we are just going to roll over ... they are mistaken."

Comments can be sent to regulations.gov.

Money for 'Made in America'

Federal grants are available for Alaska companies pinched by foreign competition.

"We look to assist firms that produce products or services made in America and, in doing so, save and create as many U.S. jobs as possible," said Gary Kuhar, director of the nonprofit Northwest Trade Adjustment Assistance Center, an arm of the U.S. Department of Commerce's Economic Development Administration.

If Alaska companies have lost sales or production to foreign competitors, they are eligible for up to $75,000 in matching grants for projects of their choice. Smaller companies, for example, can get up to $30,000 with a 25 percent match of $7,500 for the company and a grant to cover the rest. Large companies have a 50/50 split with a maximum grant of $150,000.

The money can't be used to buy equipment or pay salaries but it can cover consulting, training, website development and marketing.

The grants can help producers in manufacturing, agriculture, seafood and service firms like fish brokerages. Co-ops and trade groups also may apply.

Learn more at nwtaac.org.

Fish switch

Arni Thomson, one of Alaska's best known fishery advocates and policy wonks, has joined the new Alaska Salmon Alliance as its first executive director. The ASA was formed in late 2011 to promote policies that protect fish and ensure long-term fishing benefits for Cook Inlet. Its members include fishermen, Inlet fishing organizations and the region's four major processors.

Thomson is well known for his decades-long work at state and federal levels with Bering Sea crab fisheries and as president of United Fishermen of Alaska. He said the ASA will focus on loss of habitat from land use, not allocation fights between salmon user groups.

Fish watch

The nation's largest fishery -- Alaska pollock -- opens Sunday. This year's total catch from the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska is more than 3 billion pounds. Alaska pollock accounts for 30 percent of all seafood landed in the U.S.

Fish bucks

American Seafoods Co. is accepting applications for its Alaska community grant program. A total of $30,000 will be given out for projects addressing issues such as hunger, housing, safety, education, research, natural resources and cultural activities.

The deadline to apply is Feb. 6. Applications are available at americanseafoods.com, by emailing kim.lynch@americanseafoods.com or by calling 206-256-2659.


Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based fisheries journalist. Her Fish Radio programs can be heard on stations around the state. This material is protected by copyright. For information on reprinting, contact msfish@alaska.com.

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