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Wild Alaska salmon: Time to find better representation

Scott Woodham
Aaron Jansen illustration

TO: Alaska's salmon

SUBJECT: Look alive, troops!

Dear Anadromous Alaskans,

We The Concerned aren't sure whether salmon read the papers, but if you haven't heard already, some recent news might be causing you some dismay. We imagine you already feel somewhat alarmed all the time anyway, seeing as how your lifecycle demands that you throw yourselves into waters that are deadly to you.

But recent news from Canada and Washington, D.C., may make you wish you had hired better lobbyists.

Last week, a group of researchers in Canada made an announcement that, for the first time ever, wild Pacific salmon were found carrying the virus known to cause Infectious Salmon Anemia. Two individual smolt taken from Rivers Inlet, British Columbia, were later confirmed by another lab to be carrying ISA, the same European strain that devastated commercial salmon farms in Chile. Researchers also conclude that the young salmon must have contracted it from adults, indicating that the virus has been in the wild for quite some time.

It sounds like really scary news, but not a lot is yet known about it all. Turns out, according to scientists that study you, there is a big knowledge gap about ISA, including its effect on or distribution among wild Pacific populations.

A single study was published in 2003 indicating that you're naturally too strong to succumb to a disease that decimates your weak, farm-raised Atlantic relatives. Other evidence presented to Canada's Cohen Commission on the Fraser River sockeye collapse indicated that some salmon there had shown symptoms of the disease since 2006, but cases weren't confirmed. So far, there is no evidence that ISA kills you or has been the cause of any lost runs.

But you, as well as many of The Concerned, surely know how nature works. Generations upon generations of evolution made organisms who and what they are today. Viruses are famous for mutating. ISA has a high potential to mutate, experts believe, and efforts to eradicate it have so far failed. 

Canada's salmon aquaculture industry is understandably worried. If ISA establishes itself and spreads, as it has elsewhere in the world, their businesses might end up ruined.

Senators from Alaska and Washington state have sponsored an agriculture appropriations amendment that would make investigation of the potential threat ISA poses to you a priority for U.S. government agencies. Seeing as how the virulent strain of ISA that devastated Chile's industry in 2007 was likely exported there in eggs from Europe, and B.C.'s aquaculture industry has imported more than 30 million eggs from Ireland, Iceland and the U.S., all the worry in the Pacific Northwest might be too little too late. Then again, it might be OK. Better start taking your vitamins now just in case.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill might also be a little late to the other fight they're undertaking on your behalf this week -- squashing FDA approval for human consumption of "Frankenfish" otherwise known as genetically-modified marine organisms -- not that they should stop trying. The "fish" is known by the brand-name AquaAdvantage, and Congress aims to prevent its sale across state borders.

Those salmon-like farm goods, through genetic manipulation, mature much faster and grow larger than ordinary, farm-raised Atlantic salmon. In fact, it turns out you're related, in a way. One of the genetic components, the growth gene, comes from Pacific chinook salmon. That must make family reunions a bit awkward. 

The economic benefits of AquaAdvantage salmon are rather obvious: they take less time and money to produce. And compared with you, farmed salmon are way easier to catch -- they're all right there in one spot. Economically speaking, we'd say that's stiff competition for you and the huge set of industries that supports you and your habitat in Alaska.

But we're not that worried; to us The Concerned, farmed salmon have an aftertaste like a golf course pond.

Anyway, not everyone is revolted as we are, apparently. There's such a potential market that the owner of the technology, AquaBounty Technologies Inc., has been keen to bring the salmon-ish creatures into wider production, but the effort has been taking a while. Right now, the FDA process to approve them for human consumption is facing de-funding from an appropriations bill that has passed the House and is awaiting Senate approval.

Which is odd to us. As if lawmakers are just now finding out about these salmon-y gizmos. The U.K.'s Guardian reports that U.S. federal agencies have been helping AquaBounty to assemble its product since at least 2003, to the tune of $3 million in research and other grants. And Canadian federal help to the company has totaled $6 million. The U.S. Department of Agriculture in September gave the company a $500,000 research grant to figure out a way to ensure that its own organisms turn out 100 percent sterile, so their patchwork genes have zero chance of migrating into wild populations.

Genetic contamination of the environment is a major concern of GMO salmon opponents, and it's why AquaBounty has pledged that its product will only be raised in land-based facilities they promise will be escape-proof.

The worst case scenarios people keep fearing, though, might not be that bad for you. If ISA breaks out and crashes all the open-net salmon farms on the West Coast, Alaska's robust hatchery network might help you recover eventually. And if AquaAdvantage salmon are approved for people to eat, the entire industry might move out of the oceans into hopefully well monitored, closed-loop tanks.

Of course, we The Concerned would just prefer it if fin-fish aquaculture hurried up and arrived at a point where entire Atlantic salmon fillets could be grown in shallow glass dishes. Without bones, of course. We're not biologists or geneticists, but it seems like there'd be no chance a lab-grown fillet could mate with a wild fish.

While all this is being sorted out, we The Concerned think you need to contract some better lobbyists on the Hill. Once the current mess ends, maybe then they can start spreading the word about ocean acidification and other threats to your habitat.

Hang Tough,

The Concerned

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