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Alaska & Western States Ponder GE Frankenfish Ban

Genetically altered salmon cause debate among U.S. officials
Monday, August 21, 2000
By Les Blumenthal, The News Tribune, Tacoma, Washington

In New Zealand, researchers using genetic engineering developed a strain of
chinook salmon they believed could eventually weigh 550 pounds.

On Canada's Prince Edward Island, "transgenic" Atlantic salmon injected
with a protein grow four times faster than ordinary fish.

The "blue revolution" ó like the green revolution in biotech agriculture ó
is on the verge of exploding, and new breeds of salmon could be the first
genetically altered animals sold in the local supermarket.

But from the shores of Puget Sound to the California statehouse and from
the Alaska governor's office to two streams on Vancouver Island, fishermen,
government officials and environmentalists are increasingly wary of what
critics are calling "Frankenfish."

And in Washington, D.C., a White House panel is trying to sort out which
agency has jurisdiction, with the Food and Drug Administration, the
National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
all having a possible claim.

"We are very worried," said Glen Spain, Northwest regional director of the
Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations. "Once you let the
genies out of the bottle, you are at the mercy of the genies."

No one is quite sure what the long-term biological or environmental
consequences might be if genetically altered salmon escaped from the fish
farms, where they would be raised, and cross-bred or competed with wild,
native stocks for food and spawning sites.

Most of the attention has focused on fish farms in New England, where there
are fears transgenic fish could mate with Atlantic salmon that might be
listed as an endangered species. But there is equal concern on the Pacific
Coast.

"It's a hot issue," said Kevin Amos of the Washington Department of Fish
and Wildlife.

Scientists in the United States, Canada, Japan, China, New Zealand and
other countries have been manipulating genes in fish for more than a
decade, and some of the research is on the verge of commercial development.

A Massachusetts company, A/F Protein Inc., has said it has orders for 15
million eggs from genetically engineered, or transgenic, Atlantic salmon it
has been raising on Prince Edward Island. The company has sought FDA
approval to start marketing the eggs to fish farms.

The fish can reach market size in 18 months, rather than the 36 months it
now takes a typical Atlantic salmon.

The breakthrough came when researchers at A/F Protein, an international
biotech firm, discovered an antifreeze protein that allows flounder to
survive in cold, arctic water where salmon can't. The protein acts as a
switch that allows the Atlantic salmon to produce a growth hormone
year-round. Normal salmon produce such a growth hormone only during warm
months.

An A/F Protein spokesman was unavailable for comment, but the company's
supporters say such transgenic salmon could dramatically expand fish farm
operations around the world and relieve the pressure on wild stocks.
Already, more than half the salmon sold in the United States are raised in
farms.

Elsewhere, scientists in British Columbia and in the United States have
been experimenting with such Pacific Coast stocks as the coho.

In New Zealand, a company using genetic engineering was developing what
could have been a mammoth chinook, or King salmon, they believed could
eventually grow to 550 pounds. Wild chinook have been caught weighing 100
pounds or so.

According to reports out of New Zealand, some of the first generation of
chinook under development had lumps on their heads and other deformities.
Following a public outcry and rising government scrutiny, the company
abandoned its research earlier this year and killed and buried the fish.
The company, however, held onto frozen sperm.

While some in the United States downplay reports of such giant salmon, they
say their concerns about genetically engineered salmon are legitimate.

"I find it hard to believe a chinook could grow that large," said Rebecca
Goldburg, a senior scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund. "But
salmon are being genetically engineered for new traits and this can produce
fish that are more competitive, bigger, more voracious and can threaten
local stocks."

On the West Coast, surprisingly, it's the Atlantic salmon that could
actually pose the greatest threat. It has become the staple of fish farming
operations in Washington and British Columbia.

In Washington, dozens of net pens near Bainbridge Island, Port Angeles and
Anacortes are used to rear Atlantic salmon. About 10 million pounds are
raised annually, and it's a $40-million-a-year business. Fish farms in
British Columbia raise 80 million pounds of Atlantic salmon annually.

The problem is, the Atlantic salmon escape. Since 1996, almost 600,000
Atlantic salmon have escaped from the net pens in Washington waters, and at
least 60,000 in British Columbia waters.

The escaped fish have been caught by sports fishermen in Puget Sound and
found as far north as the Bering Sea. Most troubling, in the past year
Canadian biologists have found juvenile Atlantic salmon in two streams on
Vancouver Island, a sure sign of spawning activity.

Biologists say the chance of interbreeding between the Atlantic and Pacific
salmon in the Northwest is remote, though interbreeding has been done in
the laboratory and they can't rule it out entirely. The real danger,
biologists say, is that the Atlantic salmon will compete with the wild
Pacific salmon.

There are no signs the Atlantic salmon have significantly impacted Pacific
salmon stocks currently protected by the Endangered Species Act, but a
recent study by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife concluded
"as new data become available, the opinions of scientists may change."

Genetically engineered Atlantic salmon could provide an even greater danger
to Pacific salmon. They would grow faster and be more competitive.

"It's a recipe for extinction," said Kate Neiswender, an aide to California
state Sen. Tom Hayden. The Los Angeles Democrat wrote a resolution approved
unanimously by the California Legislature that calls, among other things,
on the National Marine Fisheries Service to ensure transgenic salmon are
prevented from threatening wild stocks.

Though there are no net pen operations in California raising Atlantic
salmon and no Atlantic salmon have been found in California waters,
Neiswender said salmon migrate up and down the West Coast, and Alaska
salmon have been found as far south as California.

Bob King, a spokesman for Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles, said that salmon
farming is banned in the state and that the governor considers Atlantic
salmon an "invasive" species.

"Having genetically engineered salmon escape into the wild is a scary
prospect," King said, adding that with a current surplus and depressed
salmon prices "we would question altering Mother Nature to add to the glut."

In the Northwest, an official of the Omega Salmon Group Ltd., which owns
the Washington salmon farms, said he knew of no plans to start raising
transgenic Atlantic salmon.

"We are not involved and don't foresee any on this coast," said Omega
controller Keith Bullough, who is based in Campbell River, B.C.

A/F Protein officials, however, said they have had private discussions
about transgenic Atlantic salmon with virtually every salmon company in the
world.

Omega is a subsidiary of the one of the largest salmon farming companies in
the world, Pan Fish ASA, a Norwegian company with operations in Norway,
Scotland, Canada and the United States.

"On the surface, knowing what they have done with transgenic fish, we would
highly scrutinize any attempt to bring them into Washington and likely not
approve them," said Amos of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, who
added that his agency would have jurisdiction.

On the federal level, the FDA has not approved for use as human food any
transgenic animal under development, including salmon. Agency officials
will say little about transgenic salmon because much of the information
they have received is proprietary.

"It's under review," said John Matheson of the agency's Center for
Veterinary Medicine. "These fish are not in the supermarkets."

Critics, however, say the FDA can assess food safety issues but has little
background in assessing environmental risks.

"Having the FDA assess environmental risks would be like having the Fish
and Wildlife Service assessing food safety," said the Environmental Defense
Fund's Goldburg. "It's absurd."

The FDA has done environmental assessments before and has been working with
the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service,
Matheson said.

"We are not competitive, we are complimentary," he said.

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