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Feds pronounce genetically modified salmon OK; Murkowski says balderdash

Craig Medred
Loren Holmes photo

Kenai River angler Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, was railing against "Frankenfish'' again on Friday after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave a green flag to long-running efforts to produce bigger, faster-growing, genetically modified salmon. Murkowski, backed by Alaska fishing organizations, has repeatedly tried to stop such approval by tying the agency up in red tape.

She previously tried, but failed, to get the Senate to require the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) be intimately involved in the process. She said again and again she thought a more thorough scientific review of the biotechnology was in order. But she sort of let slip on Friday that the demand for better science was really more of a smokescreen for efforts to simply kill the idea.

In a video released by her office outlining her renewed opposition, she stated flatly, "I just don't believe that these fish should be approved."

That view is shared by many Alaska fishermen, especially commercial fishermen who fear genetically modified salmon could provide yet more competition for Alaska wild salmon in markets already dominated by farmed fish. As technology has improved, fish farmers in Norway, Canada and Chile, in particular, have begun to dominate the markets.

No Alaskan fish farmers

Alaska produces no farmed fish. The 49th state's politically powerful commercial fishing industry convinced lawmakers to ban salmon farming in Alaska in 1989. "They didn’t want economic competition from farmed fish,'' University of Alaska Anchorage economics professor Gunnar Knapp noted a decade ago in a study on "Implications of Aquaculture for Wild Fisheries: The Case of Alaska Wild Salmon."

Competition came anyway. Over the course of the 1990s, farmed-fish swarmed markets, and Alaska salmon prices fell more than 50 percent, Knapp reported. Farmed salmon took the blame, but Knapp noted there were other economic factors in play as well. Salmon prices eventually bottomed out in 2000, however, and began to climb again.

But they never reached the heights of the good, old days.

Losing control of salmon market 

Knapp in a study this year noted that while wild salmon values are up, they are "still well below the inflation-adjusted levels of much of the 1980s." He noted, too, that Alaska has lost control of the market, which is what commercial fishermen in the state most hoped to dominate when they convinced the legislature to ban salmon farming.

"Alaska,'' Knapp said, "has become a relatively small part of total world salmon supply,'' and in the marketplace farmed and wild salmon now compete on price with many consumers indifferent as to whether they are eating a pen-raised or net-caught fish.

"If your competitors product gets cheaper,'' he warned Alaska commercial fishermen, "you have to lower your prices or some of your some of your customers will switch.''

And now comes the dreaded Frankenfish.

Ocean pout gene 

"The AquaAdvantage salmon, as it is called, is an Atlantic salmon that contains an extra growth hormone gene from the Chinook salmon and a genetic switch from the ocean pout, an eel-like creature. The switch keeps the growth-hormone gene constantly on, allowing the salmon to reach market weight in about 18 months instead of three years,'' the New York Times reported.

Faster-growing fish are cheaper to raise. That could push salmon prices down again. Murkowski and commercial fishermen don't like it. Neither do a lot of environmental organizations, which have apocalyptic visions of Frankenfish escaping into the wild and destroying nature, despite the fact humankind has been domesticating and then genetically tampering with both plants and animals for thousand of years.

The name Frankenfish itself is, of course, a play on the mythical Frankenstein, a monster created by scientific tinkering with nature. Author Mary Shelley penned the novel in the early 1800s as the Industrial Revolution was radically altering the way people lived and worked. The book became a warning against the dangers of science. It was later made into a series of movies.

Domestic animals in wild

The FDA clearly isn't buying the Frankenfish idea. The agency concluded genetically modified fish can be safely raised in a manner that would prevent them from escaping into the wild, but added that even if they do get away it is unlikely they can survive and reproduce in the wild.

Most domestic animals can't. FDA said two government agencies responsible for managing wild fish, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, signed off on the latter conclusion.

But AquaBounty, a Massachusetts biotech company that has been fighting for more than a decade to gain approval for its genetically modified fish into production, still doesn't have permission to start growing salmon. A 60-day, public review of the FDA assessment is required before the federal agency can render a final decision on Frankenfish.

The report appears certain to come under attack from a variety of interests in that time, and there is always the possibility some group could file a lawsuit to further slow the process.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com