Engineering salmon is cause for concern

Tom Sheely's October Compass piece on genetically engineered (GE) salmon strongly condemned Alaska's congressional delegation and took a swing at the Legislature, seafood industry, resident anglers, Alaskans and anyone else who may have concerns about the approval of GE animals.

Sheely, a farmer from California who owns a sportfishing lodge in Alaska, says he is completely comfortable with both GE salmon and the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) approval process.

However, it appears a few details may have eluded him.

The thing about GE salmon isn't just the creep factor. In short, the science is questionable and an open public process for approval almost nonexistent. Concerns about GE salmon include food and animal safety, environmental risk and potential impacts on fishing communities.

In 2001, AquaBounty, a Massachusetts-based firm with facilities in Canada, Chile and Panama, asked FDA to approve production of an Atlantic salmon spliced with genes from a Pacific chinook salmon and an eel-like fish called an Arctic pout. The goal is to allow fish farms to produce a faster-growing salmon. FDA is analyzing GE salmon as an "animal drug," of all things, which allows for a high level of secrecy.

It's unclear how much research has been done by the government, as opposed to AquaBounty. In fact, the agency responsible for protecting our nation's fish, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), is only allowed a "consultative" role in the evaluation.

The issue has been virtually devoid of public input. Limited information was released just days before an FDA advisory committee meeting last year, where less than 20 citizens were allowed to testify.


The minimal public comment period that followed failed to ask Americans whether or not GE salmon should be approved. Instead, the question was whether or not GE salmon should be labeled, even though FDA says they don't have the authority to require labeling. So what was the point?

Sheely fails to seriously address the most important question about GE salmon: Is it safe for human consumption? He claims that FDA says it is, but some scientists have concerns and FDA is still evaluating that question; it appears the jury's still out.

Sheely dismisses out of hand the issue of GE salmon interbreeding with wild. Yet, even Canada's environmental agency wonders if they can protect wild fish from GE salmon. Here on the Pacific Coast, concern is not so much that they will interbreed but that this non-indigenous fish could escape and disrupt other spawning fish, compete for food or transfer disease.

Sheely claims GE salmon could enhance conservation. I don't see his point, unless he means replacing my industry with fish farms. Perhaps, if he actually lived in Alaska, he would understand how wrongheaded that would be for a state where the largest job producer, and second biggest revenue generator, is the seafood industry.

GE salmon have been equated with jobs, which is a fallacy. FDA says the plan under review involves producing eggs in Canada and raising the fish in tank farms in Panama. With the exception of AquaBounty's headquarters, that doesn't sound like a U.S. jobs plan to me.

Promoters argue that fish farms and GE fish will ensure food security, particularly for a world population crying out for cheaper food and a stable protein supply. This is laudable indeed. However, the current production model favors higher-value species going to upscale markets. This could actually destabilize food supplies for those who rely on the forage species fed to farmed fish.

The GE issue boils down to one of the most fundamental of human needs and rights -- access to safe, wholesome food and reliable information about how it's produced.

Sheely is entitled to his opinion on GE salmon but our members believe there are too many unknowns for it to be worth the risk. If FDA and AquaBounty think otherwise, then the veil should come off the approval process and the public should be allowed adequate time to debate the issue on its merits.

Dale Kelley is executive director of the Alaska Trollers Association.


Dale Kelley

Dale Kelley has been executive director of the Alaska Trollers Association for nearly 30 years. She serves on the boards of several state and national fisheries organizations and federal advisory groups.