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Laine Welch: Murkowski blasts genetically modified salmon

If genetically modified salmon gets a green light from the federal government, it will be labeled as such if U.S. senators on both sides of the aisle have their way. The Senate Appropriations Committee last week passed the bipartisan Murkowski-Begich amendment requiring that consumers be advised of what they are buying.

During testimony, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, questioned if the so-called Frankenfish can even be called a real salmon.

"This takes a transgenic Atlantic salmon egg, which has genes from an ocean pout, that is somewhat akin to an eel, and it combines with the genes of a chinook salmon. I have questioned time and time agai why we would want to be messing with Mother Nature like this," Murkowski said. "We are trying to invent a species that would grow quicker to out-compete our wild stocks. This experiment puts at risk the health of our fisheries -- not only in Alaska but throughout the Pacific Northwest."

"We're not talking about GM corn or something else that is grown. We are talking about a species that moves, migrates and breeds," Murkowski stressed. "This is an experiment that if it went wrong could be devastating to the wild, healthy stocks that our farmers of the sea depend upon."

The "AquaAdvantage" Frankenfish, created by a company called AquaBounty that's based in the U.S. and Panama, has sought Food and Drug Administration approval for two decades. The company has spent nearly $80 million on what would be the first genetically engineered animal approved for human consumption. Because the gene tweaking is considered a "veterinary procedure," the fish will not be required to use any labeling identifying it as a man-made product.

Murkowski pointed out that more than 1.5 million people have written in opposition to FDA approval and 65 supermarkets (including Safeway, Kroger, Whole Foods, Trader Joe's and Target) have pledged not to carry it. Salmon farmers also are distancing themselves from Frankenfish: Both the International Salmon Farmers Association and the Canadian Aquaculture Industry Alliance have issued statements opposing genetically modified salmon.

AquaBounty CEO Ronald Stotish called critics of the fish "bullies" and "terrorists" in a Bloomberg BusinessWeek article last week.

Sen. Murkowski responded, "We are not doing anything more than telling the FDA if you move forward with a wrongheaded decision to allow for the first time ever this genetically engineered salmon for human consumption, at a bare minimum you've got to stick a label on it that says so."

Sen. Jeff Merkly, D-Ore., agreed.

"Whether we look at this from the viewpoint of a citizen's right to know what they're buying, or we look at it from the viewpoint of ensuring a healthy industry that's so important to our states, this amendment is absolutely 100 percent right on," Merkly said. "And if you buy salmon, you should buy 100 percent salmon."

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md. and chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, added: "If something is a GMO food, we ought to know what it is. I don't want to eat a Dolly-burger and I don't want to eat a Frankenfish."

A voice vote on the Murkowski-Begich amendment passed with only one dissenter. It now goes to the Senate floor as part of the agriculture spending bill.

sad passing

Alaska lost one of its finest fishery writers with the untimely death of Bob Tkacz. He covered seafood industry issues in Juneau for 33 years and published the weekly Laws For The Sea during the legislative sessions.

He was well known (and feared) for asking tough questions, having the facts at his fingertips and tenaciously demanding answers. As one politician put it, "Bob was someone you wanted covering the other guy's press conference."

Bob was a friend and mentor for 25 years, and saying he will be missed is an understatement.

Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based fisheries journalist. Contact her at

Laine Welch