Laine Welch: Over a Kodiak beer, Murkowski discusses Frankenfish

FisheriesJune 1, 2013 

Salmon setnet families streamed out of Kodiak all week, headed to their sites to get ready for the June 9 season opener. Their departures wrapped up a busy week of Memorial Day festivities on "the rock," including festivals, fleet blessings, a landslide on Cannery Row and visits by both of Alaska's U.S. senators.

I caught up with Sen. Lisa Murkowski over a beer at the Kodiak Island Brewery. She spoke candidly on several hot-button, fisheries-related topics.

Murkowski and the other two members of Alaska's congressional delegation have strongly opposed genetically modified salmon (also known as Frankenfish), and have led the charge to derail its approval for dinner plates by the FDA. The "AquaAdvantage" salmon, tweaked to grow three times faster than normal, would be the first animal approved for human consumption. The public comment period recently closed on the issue. Murkowski said the FDA decision should be announced "in seven months or so."

Should the Frankenfish be approved, the government does not plan to require labeling to alert consumers that they are buying a man-made salmon instead of the real thing. The GMO process is categorized as a "veterinary procedure" and, as such, no labeling is mandated.

Last week, Murkowski was the only Republican to vote for GMO labeling requirements at a Senate hearing; the measure failed by a wide margin. The U.S. is one of the few nations in the world that has not either required labeling or banned GMO foods outright.

"What does that say to the American people, at a time when they clearly are concerned about food safety and what they are putting into their mouths?" I asked.

"It says we don't think it's important for Americans to know," she retorted, adding that the thumbs down by the Senate is "not a final straw."

Murkowski said she is extremely concerned that the U.S.' lack of GMO labeling will be met with a backlash by salmon consumers.

"Most of Europe says no to GMOs, so if we continue to have this attitude we will lose those markets," she said.

Murkowski said participants at recent Arctic summit meetings were shocked to learn that the U.S. is so unconcerned about GMO products.

"Especially those from Norway. They told me straight out, 'We will not buy any U.S. salmon if we are not sure it is not GMO," she said. "It will crush our wild salmon market."

"Speaking of wild salmon," I quickly interjected. "Senator, are you ready to take a stand on the threat posed to the world's largest sockeye salmon fishery by the proposed Pebble mine? Alaskans are waiting to hear more than the stock response of 'They must be allowed to go through the process.' "

She responded: "As a policymaker who spends most of my days saying there is a process we need to follow, I have a tough time telling the state to chop it off at the knees. But I'll tell you one thing: Pebble isn't doing itself any favors by not giving more definition to its plans. They have documents to the moon, but no images or mine plans. The best thing Pebble could do is lay it on the table so we have something real to deal with."

"As an Alaskan, I don't like how this has pitted neighbor against neighbor, town against town, Native against Native," she added. "The longer it's delayed, the worse it gets. We've got enough issues facing us, and if we are not working together, it will be tough to get anything accomplished."



Fish watch

Copper River fishermen have been slamming the reds -- after three openers the catch topped a half-million sockeyes, twice what was expected. Conversely, the king salmon harvest of about 6,000 was disappointing. Prices started out at $4 a pound for sockeye and dropped to $2.50; the price for kings increased from $6 to $7 a pound.

Southeast trollers are back out on the water for spring kings. They wrapped up a slow winter season at the end of April but king prices were higher than ever, averaging $10 a pound in the last months of the fishery.

Alaska's largest herring fishery, at Togiak, wrapped up last week with a catch just shy of the 30,000-ton quota, the best harvest in 20 years. Overall, 56,000 tons of herring were harvested along the coast from San Francisco to Togiak, nearly 20 percent more than in 2012.

Poised to take off is the herring fishery at Norton Sound, where Icicle Seafoods has four tenders on the grounds for an 800-ton catch. Payouts there are posted on a scale from $100 to $450 a ton, depending on roe counts.

Norton Sound also just wrapped up its best-ever winter king crab fishery. The catch of nearly 20,000 red king crab was twice the previous record set in 1978. The 25 fishermen also got a record $6.67 a pound for the crabs they catch through holes in the ice. Norton Sound crabbers will begin a half-million-pound summer king crab fishery in mid-June.

Southeast Alaska's summer Dungeness crab fishery kicks off in mid-June. The Bering Sea pollock fishery reopens for the summer season on June 10.

Alaska longliners by last week had landed just more than 7 million pounds of halibut out of the 22-million-pound catch limit.

Kodiak prices were all over, most recently at $4.50 to $5, with prices starting at $5.40 a pound for 10- to 20-pound fish reported at Seward.

For sablefish, the catch had topped 11 million pounds of a 28-million-pound quota. Those prices continue to drop in Kodiak -- to $3 to $5 a pound, depending on size.



Fish bit

Public comment on the EPA's Bristol Bay watershed assessment has been extended through June 30. Visit epa.gov.


Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based fisheries journalist. Her Fish Radio programs can be heard on stations around the state or found at alaskafishradio.com. Contact her at msfish@alaska.com.

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