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Could genetically modified salmon actually benefit wild Alaska salmon?

  • Author:
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published December 5, 2015

Some say the genetically modified salmon dubbed "Frankenfish" by critics may not be as scary as it sounds -- at least not in Alaska.

The Food and Drug Administration's decision last month to approve genetically modified salmon for human consumption triggered outrage from Alaska politicians and concern from consumers.

The fast-growing creation is a combination of genes from Pacific chinook salmon and an eel-like fish called an ocean pout injected into Atlantic salmon eggs. It's expected to enter the marketplace at least two years from now.

Critics condemned the FDA for not mandating a "genetically modified" label. But some analysts say the lack of a label -- and questions about just what's in farmed salmon -- could drive consumers to wild Alaska salmon instead.

During a press conference after the November announcement, FDA officials said if people want to avoid food made with genetically engineered salmon, they could choose wild-caught.

A rising tide lifts all fish?

Given Alaskans' affinity for wild-caught salmon pulled from local waters, the state's residents probably won't see genetically modified salmon for sale at fish counters or restaurants, market analysts here say.

"As far as people selling this in Alaska, it's a nonstory," said Gunnar Knapp, a world salmon market expert and director of the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage. "Nobody's gonna sell genetically modified salmon in Alaska."

Rather, any potential effects here will come through Outside markets for Alaska salmon, Knapp said. It's possible, though far from assured, the effect could be positive.

What if the genetically modified salmon tastes weird? Or consumers who normally gravitate toward cheaper Atlantic farmed salmon decide that, without labeling, they don't want to take chances on a genetically modified one and seek out wild salmon instead?

"It could be an opportunity for us to distinguish ourselves even better," said Alexa Tonkovich, executive director of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. "If it's not labeled separately, the only guarantee would be to purchase wild salmon. "

Farm inroads

Alaska's salmon industry has already battled with lower-priced Atlantic farmed salmon for decades. Now farmed salmon makes up about two-thirds of the 3-million-metric-ton world supply of salmon, according to Knapp. (A metric ton is 2,204 pounds.)

Yes, farmed salmon cut into Alaska's market share, but it has also dramatically increased worldwide demand by introducing new customers and that helped Alaska's salmon industry, he said. It's possible that genetically modified salmon could do the same thing, though it's also possible a new salmon supply could drive already depressed prices down more, Knapp said.

"But on the other hand, let's say this GMO salmon either tastes different … or alternately -- this I think is the more likely thing -- if a lot of people really don't like the idea," he said. "You could conceivably have some people going, 'Well, I used to eat farmed salmon and I was OK with it but now because some of this farm salmon is GMO, I don't know. Maybe I better only eat wild salmon.'"

Not everybody’s silver lining

Massachusetts-based AquaBounty Technologies, the company that got the FDA permit to sell genetically modified salmon, plans to raise its AquAdvantage Salmon in land-based tanks on Prince Edward Island in Canada before exporting them to Panama to be grown.

Fish grown from AquAdvantage eggs are all sterile females, making it impossible for them to breed among themselves and with other salmon, according to the company's website.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who chairs the influential Natural Resources and Energy Committee, isn't appeased by a discussion of even potential positives in the approval of genetically modified salmon, a spokeswoman said Friday.

Murkowski continues to push for tougher labeling requirements, communications director Karina Peterson said. Along with labeling, Murkowski has expressed concern about the possibility of escaped genetically modified salmon mixing with wild stocks and competing with Alaska markets.

"She's still concerned," Peterson said. "She hasn't joined to the optimistic side of 'It's not that bad for us.'"

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